The accident at Three Mile Island was a culmination of several mistakes. As with any mistake, there are lessons to be learned. Critics of the nuclear industry frequently point to it and say neither the industry nor the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have learned anything from it and plants are just as risky today as Three Mile Island was then. Mr. Chairman, I strongly disagree.
My first observation is that this accident validated the defense-in-depth concept which is the basis for nuclear safety. In spite of equipment malfunctions, design flaws, and human errors, radiation exposure to the public was within regulatory limits and was proven to have produced no discernable health effects.
My second observation is that 30 years have passed and we haven’t had another accident like this one, which partially melted a nuclear reactor core. That doesn’t mean that the industry and the Commission can sit back and relax – they can’t. It is our responsibility in this Committee to ensure that they do NOT become complacent.
However, studying the past is useful insofar as it guides improvement for the future. I’m glad that Chairman Carper has chosen to focus this hearing on the constructive ways that the Commission and the industry have addressed those shortcomings rather than simply Monday-morning-quarterbacking a 30-year-old event.
Even though there were no discernable health effects, the Three Mile Island accident was a transformational event. Many analyses of this accident were done, cataloging the various equipment malfunctions, design flaws, human errors, and poor communication. The analyses formed the basis for the NRC to impose many new regulatory requirements and for the industry to establish a more coordinated effort to improve safety and performance. The most important lesson is the need for both the industry and the regulator to be vigilant about improving the safety of nuclear energy. As Sen. Carper is fond of saying, “If it isn’t perfect, make it better.”
This vigilance is very evident in the effort to license new plants. The NRC has indicated to this Committee that it will spend approximately 5 years reviewing new reactor designs before granting certifications. While I’m not thrilled with how long that process takes, the current process will be more predictable and is clearly an improvement over how new plant licensing was conducted in the seventies and eighties. Modern technology has also yielded great improvements in plant equipment reliability and control rooms that reduce the potential for human error.
No one should be pleased that the accident happened. But I AM very pleased that the Commission and the industry have spent the last 30 years improving the safety of our existing plants and preparing to build new reactors that are even safer. This vigilance will ensure that our country will continue to benefit from clean and reliable nuclear energy for years to come. This is the true legacy of Three Mile Island.
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