TAKOMA PARK, MD; RIVNE, UKRAINE - March 25 -March 28 is the 25th anniversary of the 1979 nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. April 26 is the 18th anniversary of the 1986 nuclear accident at the Chornobyl nuclear power plant in Slavutych, Ukraine.
The Accident at Three Mile Island
On the morning of March 28, 1979, the Unit-2 reactor at the TMI nuclear power facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suddenly overheated and the plant came within 30 minutes of a full meltdown. The reactor vessel was destroyed, and large amounts of unmonitored radiation was released directly into the community. During the tension-packed week that followed, scientists scrambled to prevent the nightmare of a nuclear meltdown, officials tried to calm public fears and more than one hundred thousand residents fled the area. Equipment failure, human error, and bad luck would conspire to create an event that stunned the nation.
TMI-2 was built at a cost to rate payers of US$700 million and had been on-line for just 90 days, or 1/120 of its expected operating life, when the March 1979 accident occurred. One billion dollars was spent to defuel the facility. Three months of nuclear power production of TMI-2 has cost close to US$2 billion dollars in construction and cleanup bills or the equivalent of more than US$10.6 million for every day TMI-2 produced electricity. The abovementioned costs do not include nuclear decontamination or restoring the site to greenfield conditions.
The accident effectively marked the beginning of the end for nuclear power in the United States. No new nuclear plants have been ordered since that time and all plants that had under order between 1974 and 1979 were subsequently cancelled. While most plants that had been ordered prior to 1974 and were still under construction in 1979 have since been completed and brought on-line, more than a half-dozen other operating facilities have been shut down during the past quarter-century.
Not coincidentally, while nuclear power has stagnated since the TMI accident, sustainable energy technologies have boomed. Over the past three decades, improvements in energy efficiency are now saving at least 39 quadrillion BTUs of energy each year, or 40% of the U.S.'s actual energy use, and are contributing more value to the U.S. economy and the environment than any energy source, because they have saved more energy than production has increased in nuclear or, for that matter, oil, natural gas, and coal. In addition, renewable energy presently provides more than 8% of the nation's domestic energy production while technologies such as wind, biofuels, and photovoltaics are among the nation's fastest growing sources of energy supply. For example, over the last five years, U.S. wind capacity has expanded at an annual average rate of 28%. Ethanol is now blended in 30% of the nation's gasoline, and the global photovoltaics grew by 34% last year.
The Accident at the Chornobyl Reactor
Similar to the TMI accident, the Chornobyl accident in 1986 was the result of a flawed design in a reactor operated with inadequately trained personnel and without proper regard for safety.
Reactor Four at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant began to fail in the early hours of April 26, 1986.Seven seconds after the operators activated the 20-second shut down system, there was a power surge. The chemical explosions that followed were so powerful that they blew the 1,000 ton cover off the top of the reactor. Design flaws in the power plant's cooling system probably caused the uncontrollable power surge that led to Chernobyl's destruction.
While there is not a consensus on the exact number of deaths to date or projected for the future that can be attributed to the Chornobyl accident, numerous estimates have put the figures in the tens of thousands. For example, a report from the University of Wales projects that approximately 39,000 people worldwide will die from cancer. About three million children require treatment and 3.5 million people live on Ukrainian territory still contaminated by radiation. Birth defects and growth problems in children have increased 230% in Ukraine, and approximately 380,000 children have an increased level of leukemia, thyroid problems and anemia. The worst health consequences for 7.1 million people may be yet to come.
Furthermore, Ukraine has lost more than $140 billion as a result of the Chornobyl nuclear accident. The Ukrainian government has already spent about $5 billion to clean up the fallout from the accident.
Despite the fact that a growing number of countries in the world are refusing to build new nuclear reactors, the Ukrainian government continues to expand nuclear energy. This is best evidenced by the government's continuing endeavors to seek funding to complete two new reactors as part of the Khmelnitsky and Rivne nuclear power plants, commonly known as the K2R4 project.
Like the United States, Ukraine has a great potential to meet its energy needs with renewable sources of energy that can be used as alternatives to nuclear energy expansion. Although Ukraine is now getting only about 2% of its energy from renewable sources, wind, solar, biogas, hydropower and geothermal energy have been shown to be theoretically sufficient to satisfy all of the country's energy needs. For instance, if 2,700 sq. km of shallow waters in the Black Sea and Sea of Asov were used for wind turbines, this would meet the entire electricity demand in Ukraine.
As two of the worst mishaps in the history of commercial nuclear power, these twin anniversaries serve as a continuing reminder of the inherent risks of nuclear energy and the necessity for both Ukraine and the United States to increase reliance on safer, cleaner, more affordable, and sustainable energy efficient and renewable energy technologies.
The Ukrainian-American Environmental Association is an international network of businesses, academic institutions, and both non-governmental and governmental organizations founded to support cooperative efforts on behalf of sustainable environmental development in Ukraine and the United States.
Sources: Ukrainian Parliament, Ukrainian Prime Minister, Ukrainian Ministry of Energy and Nuclear Safety, Ukrainian Ministry of Health, U.S. Department of Energy's Energy Information Administration, Three Mile Island Alert, Alliance to Save Energy, American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, American Wind Energy Association, Renewable Fuels Association, SolarBuzz.com.