Skip to content

Three-Mile Island (TMI), Chernobyl and Now Fukushima Dai-ichi – Is This the Last Nail in Nuclear’s Coffin?

March 15, 2011

Let me begin by saying, I am both advocate of nuclear energy and an evacuee of TMI.  Our house was 14 miles from TMI. After a relentless media barrage of the potential explosion of the hydrogen bubble, on Friday, March 30, 1979, I left with my wife and 8 month old son to our parents’ home in New Jersey. Over the weekend, RCA’s technical staff in Lancaster, PA measured the radiation level below the background noise detected from China’s atmospheric nuclear test.

To better understand the nature of these accidents a little forensics is in order. The TMI investigation revealed:
• A cooling malfunction caused part of the core to melt in the new but now destroyed 906 MWe Unit-2 reactor. TMI’s other reactor, 800 MWe Unit-1 entered service in 1974 and remains to this day the best-performing units in USA.
• Critical human factors problems were revealed in the investigation about the industrial design of the reactor control system’s user interface. The design of the pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) indicator light was fundamentally flawed, because it implied that the PORV was shut when it went dark, when in reality it only indicated that power had been removed from the solenoid, not the actual position of the pilot valve or the main relief valve. Because this indicator was not designed to unambiguously indicate the actual position of the main relief valve, the operators did not correctly diagnose the problem for several hours.
• Some radioactive gas was released a couple of days after the accident, but not enough to cause any dose above background levels to local residents.
• There were no injuries or adverse health effects from the Three Mile Island accident.

On the other hand, the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident is an entirely different matter. Overall, 336,000 people were resettled and 56 deaths, all among the reactor staff and emergency workers, were directly attributed to the accident. Estimates of the total number of deaths vary enormously from 4,000  fatalities reported in a 2005 report by the International Atomic Energy Agency, the World Health Organization, and the United Nations Development Program to more than a million cited in a December 2009 report by Alexey V. Yablokov in the Annals of the New York Science Academy.

Like TMI, the catastrophic accident at Chernobyl was caused by gross violations of operating rules and regulations. “During preparation and testing of the turbine generator under run-down conditions using the auxiliary load, personnel disconnected a series of technical protection systems and breached the most important operational safety provisions for conducting a technical exercise. The operator error was probably due to a lack of experience and training.

In trying to understand the risk associated with nuclear reactors, a comparison to aviation crashes and fatalities might put nuclear accidents into proper perspective. According to the Aircraft Crashes Record Office in Geneva Switzerland, since 1978 (year of TMI) there have been a total of 7,382 airplane accidents resulting 57,045 fatalities worldwide. The probability of a passenger being killed on a single flight is approximately eight million-to-one. If a passenger boarded a flight at random, once a day, everyday, it would statistically be over 21,000 years before he or she would be killed.

Similarly, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data points out that about 1.39 million died in auto accidents since 1978. The sinking of the Titanic, with the loss of 1,490, did not halt the maritime industry or passenger cruises across the Atlantic.

So what does all this mean, if anything? No question, nuclear energy comes with some risks. Of the three major accidents, two were caused by human error. When used properly used nuclear energy presents little or no danger to the adjacent and outlying communities. At this time, it appears that the nuclear disaster in Japan was not human related, though the court has not even started on this event.

Like any technology, improvement in operation and safety are here today. Whereas nuclear power plants now use safety systems that must be activated mechanically or electronically, the next generation reactors will have passive safety features based on natural forces such as gravity or convection. This means that even in the event of a catastrophic failure the core where the nuclear reaction takes place cannot melt down or explode. If something goes seriously wrong, the nuclear reaction will cool itself and eventually stop of its own accord, rather than requiring intervention. These new reactors also produce much less radioactive waste than their predecessors – about 10 per cent by most estimates.

Still, there is considerable uncertainty associated with nuclear power, including include plant safety, radioactive waste disposal, rising construction costs and investment risk, and concerns that weapons-grade uranium may be produced from centrifuges installed to enrich uranium for civilian nuclear power programs.

Would I want a reactor in my own back yard, No! But neither would I want an electrical substation in plain view. Nevertheless, these fatality statistics don’t stop me from driving every day and flying when necessary.

Unfairly, the nuclear power industry will experience another setback, if not a major stoppage altogether. Guess it really doesn’t matter, since climate change is only a figment of our imagination. Who needs nuclear energy anyway; it only provides about 20% of U.S. net electrical generation and 34.5% of Japan’s electricity.

In closing,  nothing is more dear to my heart than the sight and sound of natural gas drilling wells within a mile of my house, shipyards bustling to unload foreign oil tankers, the extremely hot and dry long summer days, and the sight of tornado ravaged communities nearby, including my own – once in Texas and once in Indiana.

Sources for this discussion include Wikipedia, U.S. Energy Information Association, National Transportation Safety Board, Aircraft Crashes Record Office Geneva – Switzerland, and

13 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 8:17 AM

    I really hope that this incredible and unnecessary tragedy will be eventually a starting point of discussion, for safer and cleaner energy production.

    I though have a feeling that too many interests are involved and powerful lobbies will not let this happen.

    The only chance we have here is a massive awareness and collaboration with other parties sensitive to this matter.

  2. March 16, 2011 8:22 AM

    I intend to write a piece on Nuclear Waste. Should have it out later today.

  3. March 16, 2011 10:15 AM

    The nuclear energy industry has problems that will doom it to a dark place in history.
    1. There is no answer for the millions of tons of nuclear waste that is sitting all over in holding areas at existing nuclear plants.
    2. There is no way to insure the human miscalculation factor which have been proven time and time again to be one of the biggest factors. The humans make predictions of worst case scenarios and mother nature laughs.
    3. Mankind has not control of mother nature and those who are not intelligent enough to follow the documented records of changes in the earths atmosphere, and completely missing the valid scientific scenario of the issues with climate change.
    4. Most politicians who make the rules on these situations have been bought off and lobbied to death with special interest money. Look at GE, This company that pays little if any US Taxes. designed and manufactured the Plants. They dump a few million into the Japanese Relief Fund hoping to green wash the results of their poorly designed, outdated Deadly Machines, they kept in operation, long beyond their serviceable time.
    5. Every nuclear plant expecially the 4 operating in California should be phased out immediately. Their placement near known and documented Earthquake Zones, and their Proximity to the prospective damage by Tsunami, as we have just witnessed in Japan, should show anyone with a shred of common sense that their existence is idiotic.
    6. The politicians who allowed these systems to go the way of Privatizing the Profits and Socializing the liabilities should be packed up in a plane and sent over to Japan to help Japans NRC, pour cement on the burning pile of spent nuclear fuel rods that have melted into a bubbly pile of boiling nuclear black deadly soup, that is leaking into our oceans and being dispersed into our atmosphere for all to share. We all breath the same air, and drink the same water. Its not Republican or Democratic or Independent air its that of our home ,planet earth. We all have to share the consequences of these actions.
    7. This is by far has the potential to be the worst nuclear disaster in the history of our planet. Those fuel rods that are simmering in the soup on the edge of one of the most important fishing grounds on the planet, and while I could go on here, but I will give you my opinion as to what will happen because of this in 8.
    8. The effects of this on the county of Japan will be long lasting. Those who push nuclear power will find it hard to gain the support it needs to move forward. A giant change is about to take place as those who have been responsible for pushing this nuclear calamity have been brutally, bitch slapped by mother nature, unfortunately these people have also caused all of humanity to be treated the same way. How you say? The Oceans and Atmosphere, which is shared by us all, has been urinated and defecated in by the actions of these few greedy corporations and thew few that economically benefit by their actions. Unlike people corporations do not face the death penalty. They should face it like people do, if they as per Citizens United have the same rights as people. Why don’t they? They have made this so we the people of the United States of America and the World have to pay for their transgressions. A few billion dollar limit on liability put on these disasters by our politicians is unacceptable. Here we go again with the Montra. Privatize the Profits, Socialize the Liabilities. We pay for the liabilities of Nuclear Power industry, we reap far fewer of the benefits due to the outrageous costs and environmental liabilities for thousands of years. Not facing these undeniable facts to corect these problems is complete irresponsibility.

  4. March 17, 2011 8:13 AM

    Barry – as usual – a well considered and well written post. We need to have informed and rational discussions about our energy risks. The context of nuclear vs other risks is a good start. When I first heard of the disaster in Japan, my instinct was the same as yours – that this could be the nail in nuclear’s coffin because the media would exploit the story for their own ratings to the detriment of the industry. (I think I’ve been proven right on the media’s enthusiasm for disaster.)

    Coldly, the combination of subduction-zone massive earthquakes and vulnerabilities to tsunamis are very unlikely risks here in the US. Of course we should learn everything we can from the disaster, (including the tremendous success of building codes in protecting the vast majority of Japanese from a Haiti-style collapse) but learning doesn’t mean stopping.

    I hope, without much optimism, that leaders in the energy sector and policy makers will take this opportunity to educate and inform rather than duck and run.

  5. March 17, 2011 9:06 AM

    Barry, it seems that you are a pro-nuclear energy comentator, and that is ok, everyone has an opinion.

    While we, as scientists, like to think that if anything is done well, there should not be any problems, history has proved us wrong time and again.

    Insurance companies make money by assessing risk and defining how much a client should pay in premiums to cover the risk. They (the true risk manager profesionals) will not touch the nuclear industry with a 10 foot pole. The risk is just not worth it, the uncertainty is too high and the consequences too catastrophic to even consider the possibility. The tax payer, as usual, has picked up this tab.

    We should learn something from this group of very rich risk managers and not be blinded by our “scientific logic”. We have many other alternative sources of energy with lower risk (insurable….), let’s invest in them

  6. March 17, 2011 12:55 PM

    More analogies about relative risks of nuclear accidents vs other risks.

    For example, the gas line explosion in San Bruno did not stop people from using gas. Refineries have fires – and explosions – and people are killed – but we don’t panic and stop refining gasoline. Despite the loss of life and hype over the deep water Horizon spill in the gulf – we still drill for oil. The locations are in dispute – but not the concept of drilling. Coal miners are killed all the time and mines collapse (as in Peru) but we don’t stop using coal. And whole communities are damaged by imploding coal mines – but we don’t infer from those events that houses that are not above coal mines will suddenly collapse.

    There are hundreds of thousands of dangerous industrial processes and dangerous workplaces, and a quick review of OSHA statistics shows that annually there are between 4500 and 6500 fatalities in the workplace. This is nearly the death toll for the entire event in Japan (hopefully) and nearly double that of 9-11 but passes un-noticed.

    I think the difference in our attitudes is the comfort we have with these technologies having grown up with them and not because they are inherently safe.

    There are no free lunches and no danger-free sources of energy.

  7. Mike permalink
    March 17, 2011 1:21 PM

    If I understand you correctly Barry, you agreed with majority of the folks on this planet that using radioactive material is the irresponsible, wrack less, counterproductive, brainless , criminal, …. way to boil the water. I don’t want to sound apocalyptic buy mark my word, things will be mutch, much worse for Tokyo, San Francisco and Detroit before they will be close to normal.
    Don’t take my word for it just follow air stream jet path from Tokyo to California and Great lakes, speed 140-100M/H. If you plan to buy Pacific salmon instead of Atlantic to avoid high content of Mercury, first pull from your attic Geiger counter and Bon appetite. I hope you understand you will have to be watchful for the next millennium. Amount of radioactive material that become airborne after Nagasaki and Hiroshima is drop in the bucket compare to amount of radioactive material that will become airborne for duration of the crisis from 1-2-3-4-5-6 melted down and boiling Uranium Zirconium Iodine pots. Well I hope as civilize human, you agreed with majority of the folks on this planet that using radioactive material is the irresponsible, wrack less, counterproductive, brainless , criminal, …. way to boil the water

  8. March 21, 2011 1:16 PM

    Let’s try to back up and look at this issue from a purely economic standpoint. Maybe those nails are already in the coffin but we’ve been refusing to see them.

    Is it possible to compare how much power generated from various sources actually costs (LCOE: Levelized Cost of Energy)? And, is it possible to clearly factor in external costs (Externalities: Each stage in the life cycle of fuel source – extraction, transport, processing, combustion, etc. – generates a waste stream, carries multiple hazards for health and the environment, and has a very real quantifiable cost)? Finally, once we have leveled the playing field, will simple dollars and cents be enough to tell us what makes sense?


    This is where estimating the levelized cost of various power generation technologies gets very interesting. 

While the EIA Annual Energy Outlook 2011 noted that the levelized cost for coal-fueled electricity (LCOE) from newly constructed power plants would be between $0.0948 and $0.1362/ kWh, a recent Harvard study (published in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences) noted that external costs associated with coal amount to $175 to $500 billion annually. If factored in, these costs would double to triple the levelized cost of coal-fueled electricity. That would set the LCOE range at $0.1896 to $0.4086/ kWh. If the high end figure is correct, coal-fueled electricity is perhaps the most costly method for electricity generation; more expensive than non-incentivized solar PV and off-shore wind.

    I imagine the same kind of analysis could be developed for nuclear energy. The EIA AEO 2011 for LCOE for nuclear power plants was $0.1139/ kWh. But that figure only incorporates the cost of construction (capital), operating and maintenance, fuel, and investment in new transmission. Factor in waste storage (still completely unresolved), and costs of disasters like Fukushima Dai-ichi (including long-term health costs and environmental remediation) and suddenly that that $0.1139/ kWh looks ridiculous.


    LCOE represents the present value of the total cost of building and operating a generating plant over an assumed financial life and duty cycle, converted to equal annual payments and expressed in terms of real dollars to remove the impact of inflation. The figures I am quoting come from an exhaustive and comprehensive report by the U.S. Energy Information Agency. See:

    The report calculates the LCOE (levelized cost of energy) for a new, built to current standards, generation plant coming on-line in 2016. That is why the LCOE for a new conventional coal-fired plant is $0.0948/ kWh, significantly higher than rates charged by utilities selling electricity generated by 20 to 50 year-old coal-fired plants like the ones in my home state of Kentucky (all sectors average, December 2010: $0.065/ kWh).

    The AEO2011 notes the following LCOE’s:

    • Conventional Coal: $0.0948/ kWh

    • Advanced Coal with Carbon Control and Sequestration (CCS): $0.1362/ kWh

    • Conventional Combined Cycle Natural Gas: $0.0661/ kWh

    • Advanced Combined Cycle Natural Gas with CCS: $0.0893/ kWh

    • Advanced Combustion Turbine Natural Gas: $0.1035/ kWh

    • Advanced Nuclear: $0.1139/ kWh

    • On-Shore Wind: $0.097/ kWh

    • Off-Shore Wind: $0.2432/ kWh

    • Solar PV: $0.2107/ kWh

    • Geothermal: $0.1017/ kWh

    • Biomass: $0.1125/ kWh

    • Hydropower: $0.0864/ kWh

    Remember: These numbers are for new plants. The LCOE rates do not include any incentive programs (no federal 1603 grants, tax credits, rebates, SREC sales) but they also do not include any externalities (like that pesky Harvard study that doubles to triples the real cost of coal-fueled power).

    Perhaps the most amazing thing for me to see in the AEO2011 is that the LCOE for solar PV dropped from $0.3961/ kWh in 2009 to $0.2107/ kWh in 2010 (based on the downward trend in solar capital costs due to increased product efficiencies and manufacturing processes, and economies of scale for large installations). A similar, but not quite as dramatic, drop in LCOE occurs for wind generation. Of course, the Marcellus Shale natural gas bonanza for the big fossil-fuel guys has also led to a drop in the LCOE for natural gas generation.

    The full EIA AEO2011 will not be available until 26 April 2011. Here is the full AEO2010 (all 221 pages of it…somewhere in there is the description of the LCOE methodology):

    The AEO2011 “Levelized Cost of New Generation Resources” is based on national averages. As has been pointed out to me, the LCOE for various generation types will vary from region to region. As one would expect, regional variations for coal, natural gas, and nuclear are significantly less than with solar and wind.

    The most significant variables for new coal, gas, and nuclear generation will be regional construction costs and fuel transportation. With solar PV, it is obvious that LCOE in high insolation regions like the Southwest will be significantly lower than the national average ($0.1587/ kWh versus $0.2107/ kWh). Equally obvious is the fact that in regions like the Pacific Northwest the LCOE for solar PV will be significantly higher than the national average: $0.3239/ kWh.

    As a national average analysis, the EIA calculations do not drill down into specific solar LCOE issues as carefully as SunPower proposed in their 14 August 2008 white paper “Levelized Cost of Electricity for Utility-Scale Photovoltaics”:

    As I understand it, SunPower proposes to further differentiate with a range of installations; from a 20% efficiency dual-axis tracking silicon panel system to an 11% efficiency fixed-array thin film system. I’d like to see their current LCOE figures (2008 is a lifetime ago in the U.S. energy world, pre-Marcellus Shale and pre-$0.75/ watt First Solar thin-film pricing).


    Not entirely. There are still way too many other variables and as far as I know, no one has done the detailed externalities study for nuclear power or natural gas. However, I do believe that if we make a rough guess and double the LCOE for nuclear-fueled electricity due to externalities, the cost of nuclear-fueled electricity will be over $0.22/ kWh, more expensive than on-shore wind, solar PV, geothermal, hydroelectric, and (of course) natural gas. When all is said and done, it may be true that only coal generation and off-shore wind is more expensive than nuclear-fueled generation.

  9. Engrid permalink
    April 3, 2011 3:12 AM

    Any honest and accurate estimate of costs must span millennia of maintenance and refabrication and structurual replacements, amounting to trillions…

    3/1/ 2011`
    Repeated attempts to gain attention of concerned officials failng, this is sent. They were alerted early on regarding likelihood of failure.
    Also how many fuel rods now need attending?

    [Further details [re the below] provided through A geophysical emergency is in progress and requires now immediate response. The significance of decades of demonstrations and warnings have been disregarded].

  10. Engrid permalink
    April 3, 2011 3:26 AM

    Moreover the danger eclipses purely human recourse. Be willing to reach further…


    Any honest and accurate estimate of costs must span millennia of maintenance and refabrication and structurual replacements, amounting to trillions…

    3/1/ 2011`
    A global emergency is in progress and requires now immediate response. The significance of decades of demonstrations and warnings have been disregarded].3/1/ 2010

    URGENT LETTER TO Editors in Chief and managing Editors *


    Recent nuclear reactor catastrophe’s in Japan and as at Chernonbyl and Three Mile Island etc should cause questions of safety . The recourse to more sure deactivation schemes also needs be accessed. Japanese officials need be better informed! Attempts to gain their attention have thus far not succeeded ( Regarding how to more quickly effect resolution to their dangerous plight that can be more quickly and surely be resolved using superlinear supersitions. Citizenry too need know such more safe alternatives and also of Spatial Reactors that require no useages of lethal radioactive elements – but produce prodigious safe energies. Demostrations upon formal request from: 916 978 4015 [24/7]

    [Please forward to Japan officials and Fukushima Principals][
    * Officials and Editors etc can cooperate to acquire the basic service minimum that must be in a collaterol escrow acount before services are administered].

    CST ht.i.bc

  11. April 3, 2011 7:10 PM


    What do you think the cost of burning fossil fuels is and will be. Besides, there is a good chance it dramatically perturbated the global climate. In this respect, a trillion dollars would not be a dent in the bucket.


  12. vaughn nebeker permalink
    April 7, 2011 3:54 PM

    every TimeIput out a nuclear desater there compeny defalt’s.
    it’s like genreal Eletric defalting at chernobyl,and or at genreal eltric defalt at three mile island,and or henford,or fukushima.
    US DOD will promius thay pay eany thing ,as long as the reacter go out. the technology work a 110% at cherobyl an a 177% at three mile island,a 100%at rockiey flat’s a 100% at henford washingtion. yet US DOD a Dead beat in paying it’s bill’s. IT’s like there EE us fedreal saving bonds are defalting,US tradery bill,US holder sertficts defalt.
    one can win,win,win,win,win,but till loss do to a dead beat like uS DOD.

  13. vaughn nebeker permalink
    April 7, 2011 4:06 PM

    IS it the last Nail in nuclear colfeen. IT’s were Corperation disregard the right of contery’s,in desregarding the right of the people of the world. It’s like the lake side city rulling of the a
    uS surpeam court,allowing corperasion’s to use promint comaine to push the citeznery a side of eney contery. Plus they simply do not pay there bill,but never give the curdaey of a bankrupsie like cherobyl.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: