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Video: More than only Three Mile Island

  1. Transcript of: More than only Three Mile Island

    MADDOW: It was a nightmare scenario when it happened. It is still a nightmare scenario today. A U.S. nuclear power plant on the outskirt of a big American city getting into trouble because of an equipment accident inside the nuclear plant . The reactor 's highly radioactive fuel rods began heating up at a dangerous rate. There was a partial nuclear reactor core meltdown, which caused the immediate shutdown of that nuclear power plant . Was that Three Mile Island ? No, that was Fermi 1 , a nuclear reactor in Monroe County , Michigan , on the shores of Lake Erie . That American nuclear plant went through a partial core meltdown . How about this one? A U.S. nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania , just outside Harrisburg -- forced to shut down after one of its reactors suffered two different equipment malfunctions in the span of nine days, forcing a leak of radiation into the air. Was that Three Mile Island ? No. That was Peach Bottom nuclear station in York County , Pennsylvania . How about a U.S. nuclear power plant on the Eastern Seaboard suffering a catastrophic failure of its emergency shutdown system , the system in place to prevent a nuclear meltdown ? The system failed and then the backup to the shutdown system failed. And then three days later, the same systems fail again. Three Mile Island , right? No, that was Salem nuclear power plant in southern New Jersey . How about this one? A U.S. nuclear plant employee carrying a lit candle accidently causes a fire just below the plant 's control room. That fire manages to take out the plant 's primary and emergency cooling systems, causing the shutdown of first and then ultimately two reactors . That's got to be Three Mile Island , right? No, that's the Browns Ferry nuclear plant in Athens , Alabama . How about this? A U.S. power plant suffers severe malfunctions over the course of two days, releasing 600,000 gallons of boiling radioactive steam into the air. Is that Three Mile Island ? No. That's the Indian Point nuclear plant just north of New York City . OK. How about a different U.S. nuclear power plant losing its main power source , forcing workers into an all-out scramble to keep the radioactive fuel rods cool, temperatures begin to rise, putting the plant at risk of a meltdown? Three Mile Island ? No, the Davis-Besse nuclear station in Carroll Township , Ohio , right on the shores of Lake Erie . A U.S. nuclear power plant suffers a catastrophic series of human and mechanical failures, cooling water drops so low in the one of the plant 's reactors that fuel rods begin to melt down, radioactive gases released into the air, nearly 200,000 Americans are forced to flee their homes? That was Three Mile Island . This week, 32 years ago, on March 30th , 1979 , featured this lead story on " NBC Nightly News ."

    TV ANCHOR: Good evening. There was serious trouble today at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania -- trouble serious enough to cause the evacuation of small children and pregnant women from a five-mile area around the endangered nuclear plant . The problem is that it is more difficult than had been thought to cool the radioactive nuclear fuel inside the power plant . And until it's cooled, it is very dangerous.

    MADDOW: Three Mile Island is usually thought of as America 's only big nuclear accident . That's because we tend to forget that 13 years before Three Mile Island was Fermi I 1966 , the Browns Ferry nuclear accident in Alabama 1975 , the Peach Bottom nuclear accident in Pennsylvania 1980 , the Salem reactor accident in New Jersey 1983 , and the Indian Point nuclear accident in New York was in 2000 , the Davis-Besse nuclear accident in Ohio 2002 . And that's not an exclusive list. I could go on, right? Three Mile Island gets all the glory, but, really, it is in very crowded company when it comes to U.S. nuclear accidents over the last five decades. Today, in Japan , the IAEA said it found radiation levels high enough to trigger evacuation recommendation, 40 kilometers away from the Fukushima reactors . To keep that in perspective, so far, the evacuation order around that plant extends to 20 kilometers. The government has advised a voluntary evacuation to 30 kilometers. But in this town, 40 kilometers away, well beyond even the voluntary evacuation zone, the U.N. 's nuclear agency said today they found radiation levels twice as high as the level at which that agency recommends that people evacuate. You may remember that on Friday, on this show, we hosted a distinguished nuclear scientist named Professor Frank Von Hippel from Princeton University . Dr. Von Hippel described in our interview some mapping of high radiation readings in Japan that had been done by our American Department of Energy . We posted this on our blog. You can see the bright red line there? It goes northwest from the reactor . That's what was measured in Japan as of a week ago. Now, check this out. The town that the IAEA says today showed dangerously high radiation levels, 40 kilometers from the plant , that town is here. So, that red line showed the extent of highest levels of detected radiation emanating from the plant as of last Wednesday, the town where today the U.N. says radiation levels are twice what should prompt an evacuation. That town is just about right in line with where we have been able to see that radiation traveling across Japan all of this time. I generally think that learning more about something is a way to alleviate your fear about it, but in this case, when I asked the producer Will Femia here on this show to put those maps together, and this is what he came up with, it did not make me feel better, it made me feel bad about what is going on there and how out of control this still is. Meanwhile, the United States Congress has convened hearings on how safe our nuclear reactors are here, putting the nuclear energy industry in the not all that hot but still a little hot seat.

    ANTHONY PIETRANGELO, NUCLEAR ENERGY INSTITUTE: One thing I can say going forward is that, you know, our industry, our hallmark is learning from operating experience. We learned a lot from TMI in terms of operator training, as well as design enhancements, and we will enhance safety as a result of Fukushima . We will get these lessons learned .

    MADDOW: We will get these lessons learned . I have a suggested lesson already. The simple point -- remember how at Fukushima when the power went out the backup power was those diesel generators? But the same thing that knocked out power off the grid also knocked out the generators? Right. So, they needed a backup system for their backup system . The backup backup they had at Fukushima was battery-powered. It was powered by batteries that could fuel the cooling system at that plant for eight hours. And after that eight hours was up, and the batteries went dead, then the catastrophe really began. America has about twice as many nuclear plants as Japan does. We have the same kind of backups and backup backup systems here as they do in Japan -- except frankly, on average, Japan 's are better. Of America 's 104 nuclear plants, we've got 11 plants that have the same eight-hour batteries that were not enough in Japan . The other 93 are even worse. The other 93 reactors we've got have only got four hours worth of battery power . Congressman Ed Markey is sponsoring legislation to require 72 hours worth of battery power at these reactors . That seems like a start. But in addition, any blindingly obvious and very upsetting new lessons to be learned from Fukushima disaster, in addition to those, there are also a lot of old lessons still waiting to be learned. One day before the nuclear disaster in Japan -- one day, U.S. officials signed off on a 20-year license extension for the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant . Here's the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant . Look familiar at all? The Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor shares the exact same design as the now crippled Fukushima reactors -- a G.E. -made reactor whose design flaws have resurfaced over the last few weeks.

    Full disclosure: we are part owned by G.E. You may only hear about the Three Mile Island accident when you hear about U.S. nuclear safety issues. But an ABC News review of Nuclear Regulatory Commission records turned up 56 separate safety violations at U.S. nuclear power plants in the last four years alone -- everything from mishandled radioactive material to backup generators that don't work. California 's Diablo Canyon nuclear plant , which has been the subject of much interest on this show recently, the Diablo Canyon now seeing one of its reactors shut down -- the result of a failed pump that was supposed to be supplying water to the steam generators . A majority of the county's supervisors where the Diablo Canyon reactor is located are now asking the owner of that reactor to withdraw its license renewal application until better earthquake studies can be done. They're joining with their Republican state senator who is also a geophysicist who is also a guest on this show recently, and voicing their concerns about our aging, accident- prone nuclear reactors , even though they don't start from an anti-nuclear position at all. Two hundred and fifty miles south of Diablo Canyon , another California nuclear plant announced that it will go through with new earthquake testing. That announcement coming from the operators of the San Onofre nuclear power plant on the same day that a former manager at that facility filed a lawsuit saying he was fired by the plant 's owner for reporting safety concerns. The Obama administration has brought a new high-profile bipartisan cast to support for nuclear energy , support that used to be disproportionately Republican. Everybody gets nuclear power is better than fossil fuels in terms of carbon emissions and climate change, but making that case is not the same as realistically assuring the country that nuclear power is safe. How long after a power outage could the battery packs hold off the start of a nuclear meltdown at the reactor nearest to where you live? There is an 11 percent chance those batteries would hold out exactly as long as the batteries that failed at Fukushima . There is an 89 percent chance they would only hold out half that

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