May 19, 2022

The Real Three Mile Island Story

Public opinion about nuclear power should be based on fact, not made-for-TV contrived drama.

Following HBO’s award-winning miniseries on Chernobyl, Netflix creators have decided to take a shot at Three Mile Island. But they whiffed. Their documentary “Meltdown: Three Mile Island” misses completely the important lessons of TMI — and it comes at a time that we must give serious, well-informed consideration to building new nuclear plants.

We’ve been down this road before.

In March 1979, the blockbuster movie “The China Syndrome” debuted in theaters coast to coast. The provocative thriller, starring real-life activist Jane Fonda as a courageous TV reporter who saves the world from nuclear catastrophe, planted the obvious question in every viewer’s mind: “could that really happen?” The nuclear industry — of which I was a part — scoffed, calling it “fantasy.”

Bad answer. Three weeks later, the Three Mile Island accident shook us to our core. Timing is everything.

“The China Syndrome” was right in sync with the blossoming anti-nuclear movement of that time. Its underlying premises reinforced the perceptions of the anti-nukes: that nuclear power plants are inherently unsafe, operated by dummies (Homer Simpson was still in the wings), and managed by corporate “suits” more concerned with revenues than safety and determined to keep the public in the dark.

Four decades later, the new Netflix TMI series follows that same tired script.

At first, the real-life drama at TMI seemed to parallel the Hollywood narrative. There had never been an accident like TMI; it came upon us, out of the blue, at 4:00 a.m. on a quiet mid-week morning. In-plant, the first few hours were a perfect storm of confusion, misunderstanding, and increasingly frantic actions. Communications between the plant and the outside world were sporadic and unclear.

That day and in the days following, public uncertainty — fueled by contradictory reports and a rampant rumor mill — morphed into public panic, anger, and distrust. Media, largely in a vacuum, stoked the flames, and the activists had a field day.

I was there. It was ugly.

Over time, however, perspective and reality inevitably take root. The TMI accident, the intense scrutiny that followed, and the decade-long post-accident opened the book on nuclear power, for anyone willing to pay attention. In summary:

  • The accident revealed serious blind spots in nuclear plant operation and training practices.

  • At the same time, it validated the principle of defense-in-depth. In particular, the massive containment — a reinforced concrete, post-tensioned, steel-lined structure — proved to be worth its weight in gold, protecting public and environment from the dangerous materials inside the plant.

  • Extensive, independent epidemiological assessment of area residents confirmed that the accident had caused no significant health consequences.

  • The decade-long cleanup was completed safely, and the plant placed in a stable, monitored condition. It remains so today.

TMI, the first (and only) core melt accident in the U.S., proved to be an invaluable learning experience, leading to profound changes in nuclear plant training, operation, and oversight. The accident rendered a billion-dollar plant unusable — but with no injury to plant workers, the public, or the environment, it was nonetheless a remarkably inexpensive lesson.

While that positive outcome might have been a springboard for substantial expansion of nuclear power in the U.S., that has not happened, primarily for two reasons: shaken public and investor confidence in nuclear energy, and competition from cheap natural gas. Post TMI years have seen outstanding performance of the operating nuclear fleet, but essentially no growth.

Now, however, we are wakening to the reality that precipitous shift from fossil fuels to solar and wind — compounded by inflation and war — has led to shortages in energy supply and soaring costs. The importance of energy independence and the folly of our retreat from nuclear have never been more obvious. Clearly, it is time to think seriously about new nuclear. And just as we do, here comes Netflix, resurrecting anti-nuclear themes that were dispelled four decades ago.

While masquerading as a documentary, “Meltdown: Three Mile Island” follows the formulaic “China Syndrome” storyline — the courageous whistleblower who saves civilization (in this case, from a calamitous event that is scientifically impossible), against a background of depressing music and grainy black and white film clips interspersed with angry and anguished interviews. It’s contrived drama, not information.

Resurgence of nuclear power in the U.S. faces many more daunting challenges than a silly TV documentary that plays back old fears and ignores hard won reality. I’d never make it as a movie producer, but it seems to me that Netflix viewers would have been better served by the true story of TMI — a real life event with more than enough drama for any viewer, and an upbeat ending to boot.

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