A decade after TMI…are we safer, sorrier?

By Sean Noble

On a July evening seven years ago, I was a few hundred feet in the air headed south from Rockford in a small, four-seater plane. It was a trip I had been anticipating for months, arranged by a neighbor of mine whose friend owned the little plane.

Knowing it was my first airplane excursion, the pilot took care to point out from the air all the sights I would recognize. About 40 miles south of the Greater Rockford Airport, the pilot decided to loop around to the west to start the trip back home.

Soon he was excitedly calling my attention to one more landmark—the twin cooling towers of the Byron nuclear power plant. I had always thought the plant looked ominously spooky, but this view from above was something new.

It could have been partly the shadowy evening that made the steaming towers look more foreboding than ever before, I’m not sure. But I remember that the first thoughts that entered my mind cruising over the nuclear plant were of the Three Mile Island accident that had occurred three years prior to that first airplane trip of mine.

This week marked the 10th anniversary of the most famous accident in the short history of nuclear power in the United States. Ten years ago on March 28, millions of Americans were riveted to their TV screens to catch details of the “mechanical failure” at the two reactors in Middletown, Pa.

Because of a mistakenly closed relief valve on a pump at the plant, a simple mechanical failure ended with the explosion of a uranium core which shot radioactive gases into the air. The aftermath of the accident understandably spawned a period of hysteria concerning health threats posed by nuclear power.

The actual health hazards created by the TMI accident are arguable, depending on which “expert” you talk to. But most agree no major detriments to the public health resulted. According to the Chicago Tribune, Dr. George Tokuhata of the Pennsylvania Health Department went so far as to say the “only proven health hazard from the accident is that it caused a temporary increase in the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, sleeping pills and tranquilizers.” And the TMI situation was considerably less dangerous than the 1986 Chernobyl accident, which has created true radiation concerns in the Soviet Ukraine.

But two questions arise from talk of the TMI accident’s 10th anniversary:

Are nuclear power plants safer today because of TMI? Yes and no.

Yes, because we now see greater emphasis on sophisticated problem-monitoring computer systems. There is now a full-time resident inspector for each of the 111 American nuclear reactors. And $4 billion has been spent on improvements in plant safety.

No, because 80 percent of the country’s reactors have failed to implement the 149 safety changes that were made plant requirements following the TMI disaster.

What are the prospects for nuclear power in the future?

To answer in numbers, nearly 20 percent of the nation’s electricity is nuclear-produced. And about 45 reactors have gone into use in the last decade.

In other numbers, however, half the Americans surveyed in a January 1989 poll believe a serious accident is likely to occur at a U.S. nuclear power plant, and 44 percent said the plants should, sooner or later, all be shut down.

That’s a pretty high percentage of opposition to nuclear power, considering the real threat posed by nuclear plants is minimal with all the safety precautions in place today. But Americans know “minimal” does not mean “impossible”—TMI and Chernobyl proved that.

The question for many is … who has time to worry about a nuclear attack from outside the United States when it can just as easily and likely occur from within the country itself? Although no strong opponent of nuclear power, I often ask myself that question when driving west on Highway 64, home to Rockford.

On a clear day—and on many hazy ones—you can see the intimidating Byron towers still poking up into the sky, steaming away.