I Wanna be Literated #153

I Wanna be Literated #153

Thursday, 27 April 2017

Three Mile Island
by Mark Stephens

You can’t fly into Harrisburg Pennsylvania and not notice those giant smoking towers looming near the airport. It’s like you’re landing at the nuclear power plant in Springfield. In fact, they’re the cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant where a nuclear catastrophe almost happened in the 1970s. Something happened – a radioactive spill? – but no one quite knows for sure. According to Wikipedia, something ALMOST happened, but again, it’s unclear what that is.

What Mark Stephens tries to do in Three Mile Island is stick purely to the facts of what went down during the events. Stephens tries to cast a wide net and cover all the bases of the event, focusing heavily during the week that the meltdown almost happened. He covers the power plant, the workers, the town, the nearby cities, the government administrations, and most importantly, the actual physics behind what was causing the problem. Unfortunately, Stephens seems to stick to very technical jargon and unless you’re familiar with the workings of a power plant, it’s a bit confusing getting all the mechanics of how it works in order. Some simple figures would have helped immensely here, but alas, none are to be found. Also, although Stephens tries to put human faces behind the people involved and affected, he covers way too many insignificant characters. This again makes it difficult to distinguish the important players from the supporting cast. My take home is that there was some issue with the coolant machinery that was letting the core rise to higher-than-usual temperatures. Also, the computers of the time weren’t able to keep up with the data coming in and the technical staff was getting information hours after things were happening which caused some very delayed responses. It was a combination of technical and human error, and everyone was really freaking out.

Three Mile Island was published just a year after the events it covers, so there’s not much closure or feel-good hindsight here which prevents everything from being wrapped up in a nice little bow. And even though we get a good idea of what the town was going through and the lack of communication in the chain of command, Stephens really falls short in properly explaining what was going on at Three Mile Island itself, and that’s kind of a letdown.

Hey, at least we got a great Clash song out of it.

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