Date: April 12 1979
Article: Annoyance triggers deadly chain
Authors: Jeffrey W. Blinn and Sarah L. Snyder
(Ed. Note: The following article was printed by the York Daily Records, the Shamokin News-Item, the West Shore Times, and the Hamilton Journal News.)
“Bypass the automatic safety system and keep the reactor going.” This, according to Unit 1 control room shift supervisor Dale Pilsitz, is normal operating procedure in the event of a turbine trip.
Pilsitz was working in the Unit 1 control room at the Three Mile Island installation the morning of the initial mishap in Unit 2 last Wednesday.
A turbine trip, usually perceived by control room personnel as a minor annoyance, started a chain of malfunctions in the early morning hours of March 28 that could have ended in the ultimate nuclear disaster, a core meltdown.
Pilsitz noted that “turbine trips are not earthshaking.” Generally when a turbine trip occurs, the control room operators try to keep the unit on line, he added.
At the TMI installation, there are two main safety systems. Pilsitz said that after a turbine trip, control room personnel have time to try and correct the problem. He explained, however, that if the turbine trip could not be repaired and the situation worsened, the secondary safety systems automatically engage, forcing a reactor shutdown.
According to Pilsitz, depending on the severity of the situation perceived by the operators, they try to manually bypass the automatic safety system and keep the reactor going. “It’s better to keep the reactor going at a lower level of power,” Pilsitz noted. “I guess they didn’t have that luxury in Unit 2.” He indicated that TMI personnel feel responsible to continue generating energy if it is possible.
Met Ed workers in the stock room of Unit 2 said “There it goes again” when the turbine tripped in Unit 2 last Wednesday morning.
According to Stockroom employee Mike Donelan, workers became aware of the malfunction when the safety system vented steam through the pipes. “When those things blow, you can really hear it,” he said.
Donelan was working the 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. shift when the initial malfunction at 4 a.m. and subsequent radiation leak at 6:55 a.m. occurred.
Donelan, who noted that both Unit 1 and Unit 2 have experienced several turbine trips, hypothesized that a lack of experience among Unit 2 control room personnel may have been a significant contributing factor to the mishap.
Pilsitz, who has been working for Met Ed at TMI for eight years, agreed that Unit 2 is staffed with new personnel. He added that nevertheless experienced supervisory personnel from Unit 1 had been transferred to work at Unit 2.
He continued, however, that Unit 1 and Unit 2 are of essentially different design. The firm Babcock and Wilcox of Lynchburg, VA constructed Unit 2.
Pilsitz declined to comment on Nuclear Regulatory Commission charges of human error in the mishap. “I’m not sure about the element of human error, but I’m sure the investigation will bear out any findings concerning that possibility,” he said.
Supervisor Pilsitz explained that all turbine trips have to be reported to the Department of Environmental Resources and the NRC according to Radiation Emergency Plan guidelines. However, Pilsitz said that notification need not occur immediately following a t
Notification, he said, is dependent upon the severity of the malfunction. Met Ed has 24 hours, 48 hours or even one week in which to notify the authorities of a less severe malfunction, Pilsitz explained.
In the case of a radiation leak which was initially detected at approximately 6:55 a.m. Wednesday Pilsitz said that radiation teams are sent off the island to take readings. The results are called in immediately to the plant, at which time the decision when and how to notify the authorities and the public is made, he said.
Pilsitz added that from what he knows, the authorities and the public were properly notified of the situation at the correct time.
Donelan admitted that he does not know if any of the control room operators erred during Wednesday morning’s accident. However, he contended that worker carelessness is at times evident among support personnel at the installation. He himself confessed to being less than conscientious on the job at times. “There are those days when I think, ‘the hell with it – I want to do it my way.'”
The China Syndrome a current film which addresses the possible problems associated with nuclear power plants, “really makes you think,” said Donelan. After seeing the film he said he thought more about human error and shortcuts that can be taken with serious consequences.
Both Pilsitz and Donelan are undaunted by the accident at TMI. Pilsitz pointed out that “the nuclear power industry is safe … Look at the records of Unit 1. It has been on line for five years without any major accidents.”