Newspaper: The Sentinel

Date: April 6, 1979

Article: Engineers aim to reduce radiation leaks

Author: United Press International


HARRISBURG, Pa. (UPI) - Engineers worked around a troublesome valve and began operations today aimed at reducing the small leak of radioactive gases from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

The process was pumping gases from an auxiliary building into the radiation-proof dome around the crippled reactor. Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials said it should make a significant reduction of all gases leaving the plant.

The degassing operation was stalled for a while early today by a valve that would not open. Engineers worked around that by switching to a second gas source and planned to deal with the valve later.

BECAUSE OF THE continuing release of very low levels of radiation from the plant, officials continued to advise pregnant women and young children to stay out of a five mile radius around the site.

Engineers, meanwhile, proceeded slowly in their efforts to bring the reactor to a safe cold shutdown condition. The final shutdown was expected late next week.

Robert Bernaro, an NRC technical specialist, said it took plant operators 18 hours to stabilize the reactor March 28 when the accident occurred, but he said the situation was never out of control.

"That implies people had no means with coping with the deterioration," Bernaro told UPI. "I don't think that was the case at all. They had a number of things they could do."
President Carter, referring to the Pennsylvania nuclear crisis, told the American people in a nationally broadcast speech on energy Thursday night: "You deserve a full accounting and will get it."

Carter said he would appoint an independent presidential commission to investigate what the Nuclear Regulatory Commission calls the worst accident at a commercial nuclear power generator in American history.

TENS OF THOUSANDS of the estimated 200,000 people who fled to other parts of Pennsylvania and even to other states have returned home, but some still stayed away, waiting for clearer signs the danger had passed.

At a hearing in Washington Thursday, a Congressman and a power company lawyer disagreed over whether the consumers served by the Metropolitan Edison Co., operator and 50 percent owner of the plant, should bear the costs of the accident - estimated to range into the millions of dollars.

Rep. Eugene Atkinson, D-Pa., said rather than the consumer, the power companies - and possibly the federal government, too - should pay for repairs and the replacement of power lost to the accident.

But Gerald Charnoff, a power industry lawyer, said large costs could bankrupt even an electric utility.

That was when officials declared there was a chance of a reactor core meltdown, a nuclear catastrophe that would have threatened the very lives of area residents and ravaged the rolling central Pennsylvania dairy farm countryside.

Gov. Dick Thornburgh said late Thursday he would not lift his recommendation that pregnant women and pre-school children stay outside of a five-mile radius of Three Mile Island because they are particularly vulnerable to its dangers.

"THE NEWS remains encouraging, "Thornburgh said in a statement. "It appears that we may not be close to the time when the women and children who left their homes a week ago can return."

The governor also said schools in the area would remain closed until further notice. Classroom doors were shut last Friday.

Federal and state health officials said radiation levels still were not high enough to cause harm to public safety. Tests indicated milk produced on numerous farms around the plant has not been adversely affected.

Carter cautioned Americans against overreacting to the Three Mile Island crisis.

Earlier, Carter administration officials said the country could not afford to drop nuclear power as a source of energy. Thirteen percent of U.S. energy comes from nuclear generators.

At the plant, meanwhile, engineers took the first steps Thursday leading to a shutdown of the reactor that went haywire last week.

Harold Denton, the NRC's operations chief at the Susquehanna River site, said the 10-day cool-down process began with the gradual removal of gases from the water around the uranium fuel core. This action was to avoid the reformation of a dangerous gas bubble when pressure is lowered.

The high pressure in the reactor kept gases dissolved in the water, like the gas in a bottle of champagne before it is uncorked.

DENTON SAID approval was given to a plan to pump radioactive gases from an auxiliary building into the radiation-filled dome around the reactor. This, he said, should reduce by at least 30 percent the slight level of radiation escaping from the island plant.

The cooling plan now being followed will use in a few days the same natural circulation process Henry Ford used to cool the Model T engine half a century ago.

Hot water from the reactor will flow into a steam generator filled with cooled water. The hot water will become cooler and thus sink and push already cooled water ahead of it back into the reactor to take away more heat from the core. The process will continue without the need for pumps, which might fail.