Report Of The President's Commission On
The Accident At Three Mile Island           > TMI-2 > Kemeny

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The Accident


Account of the Accident


On Wednesday, March 28, 1979, 36 seconds after the hour of 4:00 a.m., several water pumps stopped working in the Unit 2 nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island, 10 miles southeast of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.1 Thus began the accident at Three Mile Island. In the minutes, hours, and days that followed, a series of events -- compounded by equipment failures, inappropriate procedures, and human errors and ignorance -- escalated into the worst crisis yet experienced by the nation's nuclear power industry. The accident focused national and international attention on the nuclear facility at Three Mile Island and raised it to a place of prominence in the minds of hundreds of millions. For the people living in such communities as Royalton, Goldsboro, Middletown, Hummelstown, Hershey, and Harrisburg, the rumors, conflicting official statements, a lack of knowledge about radiation releases, the continuing possibility of mass evacuation, and the fear that a hydrogen bubble trapped inside a nuclear reactor might explode were real and immediate. Later, Theodore Gross, provost of the Capitol Campus of Pennsylvania State University located in Middletown a few miles from TMI, would tell the Commission:

Never before have people been asked to live with such ambiguity. The TMI accident -- an accident we cannot see or taste or smell ... is an accident that is invisible. I think the fact that it is invisible creates a sense of uncertainty and fright on the part of people that may well go beyond the reality of the accident itself.2  

The reality of the accident, the realization that such an accident could actually occur, renewed and deepened the national debate over nuclear safety and the national policy of using nuclear reactors to generate electricity.

Three Mile Island is home to two nuclear power plants, TMI-1 and TMI-2. Together they have a generating capacity of 1,700 megawatts, enough electricity to supply the needs of 300,000 homes. The two plants are owned jointly by Pennsylvania Electric Company, Jersey Central Power & Light Company, and Metropolitan Edison Company, and operated by Met Ed. These three companies are subsidiaries of General Public Utilities Corporation, an electric utility holding company headquartered in Parsippany, New Jersey.3

Each TMI plant is powered by its nuclear reactor. A reactor's function in a commercial power plant is essentially simple -- to heat water. The hot water, in turn, produces steam, which drives a turbine that turns a generator to produce electricity. Nuclear reactors are a product of high technology. In recent years, nuclear facilities of generating capacity much larger than those of earlier years -- including TMI-1 and TMI-2 have gone into service.4

A nuclear reactor generates heat as a result of nuclear fission, the splitting apart of an atomic nucleus, most often that of the heavy atom uranium. Each atom has a central core called a nucleus. The nuclei of atoms typically contain two types of particles tightly bound together: protons, which carry a positive charge, and neutrons, which have no charge. When a free neutron strikes the nucleus of a uranium atom, the nucleus splits apart. This splitting -- or fission -- produces two smaller radioactive atoms, energy, and free neutrons. Most of the energy is immediately converted to heat. The neutrons can strike other uranium nuclei, producing a chain reaction and continuing the fission process. Not all free neutrons split atomic nuclei. Some, for example, are captured by atomic nuclei. This is important, because some elements, such as boron or cadmium, are strong absorbers of neutrons and are used to control the rate of fission, or to shut off a chain reaction almost instantaneously.5

Uranium fuels all nuclear reactors used commercially to generate electricity in the United States. At TMI-2, the reactor core holds some 100 tons of uranium. The uranium, in the form of uranium oxide, is molded into cylindrical pellets, each about an inch tall and less than half-an-inch wide. The pellets are stacked one atop another inside fuel rods. These thin tubes, each about 12 feet long, are made of Zircaloy-4, a zirconium alloy. This alloy shell -- called the "cladding" -- transfers heat well and allows most neutrons to pass through.6

TMI-2's reactor contained 36,816 fuel rods -- 208 in each of its 177 fuel assemblies. A fuel assembly contains not only fuel rods, but space for cooling water to flow between the rods and tubes that may contain control rods or instruments to measure such things as the temperature inside the core. TMI-2's reactor has 52 tubes with instruments and 69 with control rods.7

Control rods contain materials that are called "poisons" by the nuclear industry because they are strong absorbers of neutrons and shut off chain reactions. The absorbing materials in TMI-2's control rods are 80 percent silver, 15 percent indium, and 5 percent cadmium. When the control rods are all inserted in the core, fission is effectively blocked, as atomic nuclei absorb neutrons so that they cannot split other nuclei. A chain reaction is initiated by withdrawing the control rods.  By varying the number of and the length to which the control rods are withdrawn, operators can control how much power a plant produces. The control rods are held up by magnetic clamps. In an emergency, the magnetic field is broken and the control rods, responding to gravity, drop immediately into the core to halt fission. This is called a "scram."

The nuclear reactors used in commercial power plants possess several important safety features. They are designed so that it is impossible for them to explode like an atomic bomb. The primary danger from nuclear power stations is the potential for the release of radioactive materials produced in the reactor core as the result of fission. These materials are normally contained within the fuel rods.

Damage to the fuel rods can release radioactive material into the reactor's cooling water and this radioactive material might be released to the environment if the other barriers -- the reactor coolant system and containment building barriers -- are also breached.8

A nuclear plant has three basic safety barriers, each designed to prevent the release of radiation. The first line of protection is the fuel rods themselves, which trap and hold radioactive materials produced in the uranium fuel pellets.

The second barrier consists of the reactor vessel and the closed reactor coolant system loop. The TMI-2 reactor vessel, which holds the reactor core and its control rods, is a 40-foot high steel tank with walls 8- inches thick. This tank, in turn, is surrounded by two, separated concrete- and-steel shields, with a total thickness of up to 9- feet, which absorb radiation and neutrons emitted from the reactor core. Finally, all this is set inside the containment building, a 193-foot high, reinforced-concrete structure with walls 4 feet thick.9

To supply the steam that runs the turbine, both plants at TMI rely on a type of steam supply system called a pressurized water reactor. This simply means that the water heated by the reactor is kept under high pressure, normally 2,155 pounds per square inch in the TMI-2 plant.

In normal operations, it is important in a pressurized water reactor that the water that is heated in the core remain below "saturation" -- that is, the temperature and pressure combination at which water boils and turns to steam. In an accident, steam formation itself is not a danger, because it too can help cool the fuel rods, although not as effectively as the coolant water. But problems can occur if so much of the core's coolant water boils away that the core becomes uncovered.

Schematic of the TMI-2 facility

An uncovered core may lead to two problems. First, temperature may rise to a point, roughly 2,200F, where a reaction of water and the cladding could begin to damage the fuel rods and also produce hydrogen. The other is that the temperature might rise above the melting point of the uranium fuel, which is about 5,200F. Either poses a potential danger. Damage to the zirconium cladding releases some radioactive materials trapped inside the fuel rods into the core's cooling water. A melting of the fuel itself could release far more radioactive materials. If a significant portion of the  fuel should melt, the molten fuel could melt through the reactor vessel itself and release large quantities of radioactive materials into the containment building. What might happen following such an event is very complicated and depends on a number of variables such as the specific characteristics of the materials on which a particular containment building is constructed.10

The essential elements of the TMI-2 system during normal operations include:

 The reactor, with its fuel rods and control rods.

 Water, which is heated by the fission process going on inside the fuel rods to ultimately produce steam to run the turbine. This water, by removing heat, also keeps the fuel rods from becoming overheated.

 Two steam generators, through which the heated water passes and gives up its heat to convert cooler water in another closed system to steam.

 A steam turbine that drives a generator to produce electricity.

 Pumps to circulate water through the various systems.

 A pressurizer, a large tank that maintains the reactor water at a pressure high enough to prevent boiling. At TMI-2 the pressurizer tank usually holds 800 cubic feet of water and 700 cubic feet of steam above it. The steam pressure is controlled by heating or cooling the water in the pressurizer. The steam pressure, in turn, is used to control the pressure of the water cooling the reactor.

Normally, water to the TMI-2 reactor flows through a closed system of pipes called the "reactor coolant system" or "primary loop." The water is pushed through the reactor by four reactor coolant pumps, each powered by a 9,000 horsepower electric motor. In the reactor, the water picks up heat as it flows around each fuel rod. Then it travels through 36-inch diameter, stainless steel pipes shaped like and called "candy canes," and into the steam generators.

In the steam generators, a transfer of heat takes place. The very hot water from the reactor coolant system travels down through the steam generators in a series of corrosion-resistant tubes Meanwhile, water from another closed system -- the feedwater system or secondary loop" -- is forced into the steam generator.

The feedwater in the steam generators flows around the tubes that contain the hot water from the reactor coolant system. Some of this heat is transferred to the cooler feedwater, which boils and becomes steam. Just as it would be in a coal- or oil-fired generating plant, the steam is carried from the two steam generators to turn the steam turbine, which runs the electricity-producing generator. 

The water from the reactor coolant system, which has now lost some of its heat, is pumped back to the reactor to pass around the fuel rods, pick up more heat, and begin its cycle again.

The water from the feedwater system, which has turned to steam to drive the turbine, passes through devices called condensers. Here, the steam is condensed back to water, and is forced back to the steam generators again.

The condenser water is cooled in the cooling towers. The water that cools the condensers is also in a closed system or loop. It cools the condensers, picks up heat, and is pumped to the cooling towers, where it cascades along a series of steps. As it does, it releases its heat to the outside air, creating the white vapor plumes that drift skyward from the towers. Then the water is pumped back to the condensers to begin its cooling process over again.

Neither the water that cools the condensers, nor the vapor plumes that rise from the cooling towers, nor any of the water that runs through the feedwater system is radioactive under normal conditions. The water that runs through the reactor coolant system is radioactive, of course, since it has been exposed to the radioactive materials in the core.

The turbine, the electric generator it powers, and most of the feedwater system piping are outside the containment building in other structures. The steam generators, however, which must be fed by water from both the reactor coolant and feedwater systems, are inside the containment building with the reactor and the pressurizer tank.

A nuclear power facility is designed with many ways to protect against system failure. Each of its major systems has an automatic backup system to replace it in the event of a failure. For example, in a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA) -- that is, an accident in which there is a loss of the reactor's cooling water -- the Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS) automatically uses existing plant equipment to ensure that cooling water covers the core.

In a LOCA, such as occurred at TMI-2, a vital part of the ECCS is the High Pressure Injection (HPI) pumps, which can pour about 1,000 gallons a minute into the core to replace cooling water being lost through a stuck-open valve, broken pipe, or other type of leak. But the ECCS can be effective only if plant operators allow it to keep running and functioning as designed. At Three Mile Island, they did not.