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Was America's Nuclear Energy Program Sabotaged?

By James Donahue

Some say the 1979 incident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear electric generating plant may have been an act of sabotage that destroyed America's confidence in nuclear powered electric generating plants.

Whether true or not, the incident, which nearly triggered an uncontrolled nuclear meltdown, virtually halted construction of nuclear power plants in the United States. It did not, however, stop the U. S. Navy from successfully placing nuclear power in its ships, and they have continued performing perfectly well to this day.

The close call at Three Mile Island, followed by the Chernobyl disaster seven years later, supported a nation-wide distrust of nuclear power as a source of electricity. Yet more and more nuclear power plants have been operating successfully throughout the world and it is again being proposed as an alternative to carbon fuels in new energy programs proposed by the Obama Administration.

While improved designs of nuclear fueled power plants have shown that these plants can be operated safely, the problem of constructing new ones has involved objections by communities to have these facilities located in their vicinity. The other problems include the disposal of plutonium, a deadly nuclear waste, and the high cost of building and operating these facilities.

Yet the benefits of producing a large amount of energy without spewing carbon emissions into our already saturated atmosphere are tempting. Can we convince a nation of skeptics that going nuclear can be a good idea?

Because nuclear power plants came on the scene during the Cold War era, when Americans were still building underground shelters against a possible nuclear bomb attack by the Russians, people harbored a lot of skepticism as to just how safe such plants could be.

I was working as a news reporter in South Haven, Michigan, at the time Consumer Power Company was building one of its nuclear power plants along the Lake Michigan shore five miles to the south. There were a lot of public hearings and public relations events designed to sell the people on the safety of such a plant.

That plant, known as the Palisades Power Plant, is still operating today under the control of Entergy Corporation and is licensed to continue operating until the year 2031.

Some say the Three Mile Island crisis might have been a manufactured “disaster” because the onset of nuclear power plants threatened billions of dollars in profits to the coal industry.

The 1978 release of the Hollywood film The China Syndrome, which portrayed the horror of a total meltdown of a nuclear power plant, strangely preceded the meltdown at Three Mile Island exactly one year later. The real meltdown was an almost exact replica of the disaster presented in the film.

Was the movie a prophetic glimpse of a future event, or did it stir an over-zealous plant worker to sabotage the second reactor at Three Mile Island. Whatever the reason, someone closed a key valve on an important coolant water line, setting off a chain of events that came close to causing a total meltdown.

That it happened just one year and 12 days after the release of the movie, the Three Mile Island near-disaster helped tweak the minds of Americans to distrust nuclear power as a reliable alternative energy source.

The Chernobyl disaster, which involved a complete meltdown and affected the lives of thousands of people in an entire region seven years later, helped support the feeling of distrust.

The public reaction to nuclear power is still a hotly contested issue in the United States to this day, even though legislators and scientists are frantically looking for alternatives to coal and oil for generating a growing demand for electricity under skies thick with the carbon monoxide generated in the last century.

A major issue the United States and consequently the United Nations currently has with the Iranian government is its unwillingness to halt the development of its own nuclear powered electric generating facility. The United States, Israel and some European leaders have expressed concern that Iran will use the plutonium created at that plant to build nuclear bombs.

Thus the impact of the Three Mile Island incident continues to have its effect on the minds of Americans, even to this day.

Hearings that followed the Three Mile Island accident, and mountains of news stories, technical reports and other research, failed to point to sabotage at Three Mile Island. A careful study of the report, however, notes that certain check valves and gauges designed to prevent such a disaster malfunctioned for unknown reasons.

There were at least 12 different workers in the plant at the time of the "accident," and all were thoroughly questioned about their part in what occurred.

The official conclusion was that Three Mile Island's accident was caused by "a combination of design flaws, mismanagement and operator errors."

The mishap destroyed one of the two nuclear reactors on about the second day that it went on line. While there were no lives lost at the time of the incident, there was so much radiation released that health officials believe there will be a high rate of cancer and other health problems that show up among people living for miles downwind of the plant.

The worst damage of all was exactly what the film and the "accident" were designed to create. There was "a profound change in American public attitude toward nuclear power."