Newspaper: The Patriot
Date: March 29, 1979
Title: Event Rated Serious
Author: Richard Roberts, Staff Writer
Radioactive material continued to be released into the atmosphere late Wednesday night from Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Station in the aftermath of “one of the more serious reactor accidents in the history of commercial power operation,” according to state and federal officials.
Emergency officials in Dauphin, Cumberland, York and Lancaster counties complained that they either were not notified of the emergency or were notified too late.
Radioactive material was being vented from the plant at the rate of one millirem per hour on an indefinite basis as part of a process to cool the reactor, according to Col. Oran K. Henderson, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.
Henderson said his agency has been placed on “an advanced state of readiness” because of the continued emission of radioactive materials from the plant. He said he has advised officials in Dauphin, Cumberland, York, and Lancaster counties that the plant began venting radioactive materials at 5:00 pm.
A discharge of radioactive material also occurred between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., officials said.
Readings of radioactivity had not indicated any immediate danger to the public, and there were no immediate plans to begin evacuating residents who lived near the plant, Henderson said. “It’s a standoff at the present time,” he said.
“This is one of the more serious reactor accidents to happen in the history of commercial power operation,” said Jan Strasma, a spokesman for the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
A breakdown in the cooling system at the plant about 4 a.m. Wednesday of the plant’s Unit 2 reactor, according to an NRC spokesman.
In addition to radioactive materials released into the atmosphere, radiation was beamed through the four-foot-thick, steel-lined concrete walls of the reactor dome to a distance of more than a mile, according to Edson Case, NRC deputy director of reactor regulation.
Strasma late Wednesday night said the maximum amount of radiation measured was three millirems per hour at a site about a third of a mile from the plant. At a site one mile from the plant, a reading of one millirem was measured, he said.
“We believe this is principally direct radiation coming from radioactive material in the reactor containment building, rather than the release of radioactive materials from the building,” he said.
Strasma said: “It now appears that the cause of turbine shutdown at the plant earlier today was a reduction in flow of feedwater to the steam reactors. The sequence of events which led to the release of radioactivity to the reactor containment building is not determined yet.”
Charles Callina, an NRC investigator who spent all day at the nuclear plant, said radiation was being emitted from nuclear-charged water in an auxiliary building.
“We have a serious contamination problem on site,” he said. “You might say from the breadth of the problem it’s one of the more serious. The extent makes it serious, not the breadth.”
Radiation levels inside the reactor housing were 1,000 times above normal, Case said. Radioactivity inside the reactor dome was being measured at a rate of about 6,000 Roentgens per hour, he said.
NRC spokesman Sue Gagner said a diagnostic medical X-ray would emit the equivalent of about .072 Roentgen per hour. Case said radiation levels inside the reactor dome are normally about five or six Roentgens.
George Troffer, manager of generation quality assurance for Metropolitan Edison Co. of Reading, the plant’s operator, said he thought the NRC’s figures were far too high. He said the level was perhaps 10 times more than normal.
The Problem facing TMI employees Wednesday night was to reduce the temperature and pressure inside the reactor dome and to stop radioactive gases from leaking into the atmosphere.
Case said heat-caused pressure inside the dome had risen temporarily to four or five pounds per square inch above the outside atmospheric pressure, enough to cause small amounts of leakage.
He said the leakage might have included radioactive gases from the nuclear fuel- such as iodine and xenon. But Case said pressure was not high enough to cause such heavy fuels as uranium or plutonium to leak.
Joe Fouchard, an NRC spokesman, said the only likely source of high-level radiation being detected appears to be coming from some portion of the reactor’s nuclear fuel. Officials reported earlier that the plant released radioactive steam. Fouchard said steam alone would not be strong enough to penetrate the steel-lined reactor walls.
Fouchard said control rods have been inserted to stop the nuclear reaction in the reactor core. But he said it was not known whether some part of the fuel might have been melted, evaporated, or blown out of the core before insertion of the control rods and injections of emergency cooling water.
William P. Dornsife, a nuclear engineer in the state Department of Environmental Resources’ Bureau of Radiological Health, said the reactor core had become overheated during the accident.
Met Ed spokesman Blaine Fabian said: “There is absolutely no danger of a melt-down” (in which the nuclear fuel overheats until it melts its way out of the containment vessel.)
At one point, TMI employees inside a control room temporarily were forced to put on face masks because radioactive materials leaked into the room, Case said.
Troffer said persons inside the control room were protected from the high levels of radiation inside the reactor housing by both thick walls and equipment and by the fact that radiation loses it energy quickly with distance.
About 50 to 60 of the plant’s 525 employees were in the plant when the accident occurred, according to Bill Gross, TMI public information coordinator.
“We washed them down and scrubbed them,” Gross said. “Nobody has been injured yet.”
Officials declared a state of general emergency shortly after the incident. The plant was evacuated and closed and the reactor building was sealed.
G.E. Parks, manager of Metropolitan Edison Co. consumer services, said TMI officials notified DER, NRC, and the Dauphin County Office of Emergency Preparedness. “We told them as soon as we could reach someone,” he said.
Jack Herbein, Met Ed vice president-generation, operator of the plant, said in a press conference Wednesday morning that radiation levels at the plant’s boundaries were seven millirems, about 1/10th of those which normally would be considered dangerous. The company is continuing to monitor for airborn radiation, he said.
He said the first indication of trouble came at 4 a.m., when two main feed pumps shut down. The Unit 2 reactor “tripped (shut down) on high pressure,” Herbein said. A reactor coolant drain tank overpressurized, he said.
In Unit 2, there are four reactor collant pumps, each capable of generating 9,000 horsepower.
A site emergency was declared at 6:50 a.m.,, he said. Local officials, including Middletown civil defense personnel, were not called by Dauphin County Control until 7:47a.m., nearly four hours after the incident.
Asked why it took so long to notify area authorities, Herbein said: “I don’t think there was any delay. We’re still not to (the point where) a general emergency (is declared).” He said TMI employees acted “promptly and forthrightly” in the incident.
Gross said TMI did not “have to declare an emergency. We had more radiation a couple years ago when we had fallout from the Chinese nuclear explosion.”
Some of the workers who were on duty “may have been” contaminated, but none were hospitalized, Herbein said. “No one was overexposed,” he said.
Asked to characterize the incident, he said it is “one of the most serious” to occur at Three Mile Issland but stopped short of saying it was a “close call.”
No radiation was detected in the Susquehanna River, he said. Although he said it would be “premature to say that we’ll be able to see radiation in cows’ milk,” he added, “I don’t think” the public is in danger.
He said “a very minor amount of fuel failure” occurred in the reactor core. He said perhaps ½ percent of the fuel pins among the 36, 816 rods filled with radioactive material had melted as a result of a lack of coolant. Each reactor has 177 fuel assemblies, each of them having 208 rods filled with 200 pellets of uranium.
Gary Miller, TMI station manager, released the following account of the incident: “We had a turbine trip (a shutoff) early this morning due to a feedwater problem in the secondary side of the plant.
“This caused the reactor to trip (shut off) on high pressure, which was followed by the pressurizer relief valves relieving, which resulted in a radioactive water release in the reactor building.
“Since this radioactive coolant water was released inside the reactor building, this led to the emergency plan implementation. We are presently bringing the plant down to an orderly shutdown condition.”
“To the best of our knowledge, the accident sent two or three milirems of radiation into the air,” Parks said. “One millirem is considered normal in the Middletown area.”
A special team of seven nuclear health physicists from Brookhaven National Laboratory at Upton, N.Y., armed with 10 cases of sophisticated monitoring and analysis equipment, was flown to Capital City Airport in Fairview Twp. by a Coast Guard helicopter.
The scientists landed in a Sikorsky H3 helicopter about 2:40 p.m. and immediately set up air sampling devices on a taxi way near the main terminal building.
Robert Friess, technical assistant to the area manager of the Brookhaven office of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Radiological Assistance Program, said the team received a call for assistance from state officials at 11:30 a.m.
Nathanial Greenhouse, a member of the team, said initial samples taken at the airport showed no evidence of radioactive contamination. He said samples were taken at the airport because it was downwind from Three Mild Island.
It was the first time that the team of scientists, which was formed to respond to nuclear emergencies in 11 Northeast states, had been called to a nuclear reactor mishap, he said.
Coast Guard Commander Al Baker, the helicopter pilot, said his crew took off from Otis Air Force Base on Cape Cod in Massachusetts at 10:37 a.m. to pick up the scientists at Brookhaven.
Another Energy Department team flew to Capital City Airport from Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland, in a specially instrumented Hughes H-500 helicopter. Herbert F. Hahn, site manager of the Energy Department’s Eastern Measurements Office, said his team’s mission is to monitor radioactivity from the air.
Hahn established a command post in the office of Airport Manger Charles H. Hostetter. The helicopter, piloted by Jac Watson, lifted off from the airport about 3:30 p.m. on its first flight to scan the air in the Harrisburg area for radioactive materials.
A scientist aboard the helicopter uses sophisticated monitoring equipment and an on-board computer to collect the data, Hahn said. Information from the aerial monitoring will be fed into another computer that is being transported to the airport in a van from Washington, D.C., Hahn said. The computer van was expected arrive about midnight.
Hahn said his team was put into action by the NRC. Aerial monitoring was halted about 6:15 p.m., and was scheduled to resume Thursday about 7 a.m. No results of the monitoring were released.
TMI employees, waiting to be told when and where they would work, milled around outside the Three Mile Island Observation Center. Most had radiation dosometers clipped on their shirts to measure radiation in the air.
“I’m just coming off the 3 to 11 p.m. shift,” Darrell S. Kinter of Dillsburg said. “We’ve had drills for evacuation, but I know of no other time when an abrupt shutdown and evacuation of the island has happened.”
Kinter, an instrumentation technician at Unit 1, said he has worked at TMI for five years.
“I’m not scared,” Kinter said. “I don’t know what happened but they evacuated the island to be on the safe side. They don’t want us there.”
Donald E. Barry of Middletown, a TMI technical analyst in maintenance, said he works in Unit 1 and Unit 2. “I’m not apprehensive about what happened today,” he said.
The National Weather Service at Harrisburg said winds from 4 a.m. until 10 a.m. Wednesday were light and variable. After 10 a.m., the winds were blowing to the northwest at from four to 14 miles an hour. Late Wednesday night, winds were reported blowing to the northwest at 12 mph.
Winds Thursday are expected to blow north to the northeast at 10-20 mph.
Unit 2, a 900-megawatt system, cost about $700 million and was placed into commercial service on Dec. 30. It had been operating at nearly full capacity- 98 percent- for about four or five weeks, according to William R. Gross, a Met Ed spokesman.
Unit 1, an 800-megawatt reactor system, had been shut down for routine refueling and is expected to be placed back into service next week, Herbein said.
The cost to Met-Ed of having to rely on other, coal-fired generating stations to produce electricity is about $500,000 a day, Herbein said. It will be “weeks” before Unit 2 can resume operation, he said.
The plant is owned by General Public Utilities Corp., a consortium of Med Ed, Jersey Central Power & Light Co. and Pennsylvania Electric Co.