Thirty years ago today, March 28, 1979, with a former nuclear engineer in the White House and a newly-elected governor in Harrisburg, PA, the United States faced a crisis when a cooling system failure at a nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island (TMI) power plant just south of the Pennsylvania capital threatened the safety of millions of people. Less than two years earlier, I had left a job in the nuclear power industry, disenchanted with my particular management but not with the technology itself.
Without question, the TMI accident changed the debate over the safety of nuclear power forever.
Fast forward sixteen years to 1995, with the publication of my third children’s book, Catastrophe! Great Engineering Failure–and Success. The theme of that book was that engineering is an exercise in trying to avoid failure by learning from past errors, both large and small.
My chapter on nuclear power describes and contrasts TMI and the unmitigated disaster at Chernobyl, which some commentators likened to experimenting with an airplane engine while in flight.
When I wrote that book, I could look back on TMI and my experience in the nuclear industry with the perspective of experience and with growing awareness of the geopolitics of petroleum and the earliest awakenings among the general public to the risks of global warming.
Clearly, the nuclear industry had something to offer to our energy future. But just as clearly, the industry needed to address issues of both safety and waste disposal. I looked ahead to when my readers would be entering their adulthood and would become participants in the political discussions regarding nuclear power. Thus I wrote the following paragraphs, which turned out to be particularly prescient.
Still, sometime in your lifetime, the question of nuclear power is likely to arise again. The designs will be safer, the plans for waste disposal will be better, and the concerns about other sources of electric power will grow.
Both sides will argue that we have learned the lessons of TMI and Chernobyl. One side will say that the lessons teach us that nuclear power plant technology will always be too risky to try. The other side will say that the we have learned the lessons of failure and that we can succeed in spite of the risks.
Coming to the right decision then will be no easier than it is now, nor will it be any less important. TMI and Chernobyl are two spectacular failures from which we will be learning for a long time.