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Power Science

Three Mile Island Memories 309

theodp writes "Thirty years after the partial nuclear core meltdown at Three Mile Island, Robert Cringely describes the terrible TMI user interface, blaming a confluence of bad design decisions — some made by Congress — for making the accident vastly worse. While computers could be used to monitor the reactor, US law prohibited using computers to directly control nuclear power plants — men would do that. So, when the (one) computer noticed a problem, it would set off audible and visual alarms, and send a problem description to a line printer. Simple, except the computer noticed 700 things wrong in the first few minutes of the TMI accident, causing the one audible alarm to ring continuously until it was shut off as useless. The one visual alarm blinked for days, indicating nothing useful. And the print queue was quickly flooded with 700 error reports followed by thousands of updates and corrections, making it almost instantly hours behind. The operators had to guess at what the problem was."
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Three Mile Island Memories

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  • by marco.antonio.costa ( 937534 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @01:23PM (#27458605)

    Obama's 'new regulatory framework for the 20th century' crowd: Choke on that please.

  • by tomhudson ( 43916 ) <barbara@hudson.barbara-hudson@com> on Saturday April 04, 2009 @01:28PM (#27458667) Journal

    700 things wrong in the first few minutes of the TMI accident, causing the one audible alarm to ring continuously until it was shut off as useless. The one visual alarm blinked for days, indicating nothing useful. And the print queue was quickly flooded with 700 error reports followed by thousands of updates and corrections, making it almost instantly hours behind. The operators had to guess at what the problem was."

    So the problem with Three Mile Island (TMI) was Too Much Information (TMI). But I didn't read the article, as that would have been TMI.

  • Re:Three-Mile Island (Score:3, Interesting)

    by King_TJ ( 85913 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @01:48PM (#27458833) Journal

    Yep ... and as I think I posted once before in another Slashdot topic, I actually work with a guy who used to be an engineer at the firm that was ordered to make some piping for the Three Mile Island reactor, on a "rush" basis, when the problems first started there.

    He claims he spoke with people at the reactor site, asking them "How could something like this happen in the first place?" and was taken off to the side, and told that it would take a very specific sequence of adjustments to a number of valves to cause what happened. He replied, "Well, that doesn't sound very probable that could happen by accident?" He was then told that, "Yes, although it COULD theoretically happen, it seems HIGHLY improbable. It's also worth considering that the China Syndrome movie was just released in theaters shortly before this happened."

    So in short, seems very possible it was caused by someone wishing to sabatoge the project as much as anything.

  • Jimmy Carter (Score:3, Interesting)

    by bgeer ( 543504 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @01:48PM (#27458839)

    Our President at the time, Jimmy Carter, was also a micro-manager and a former nuclear engineer:

    U.S. Navy reactor operators, the sort who served under Jimmy Carter in the 1950s,

    Is not and never was a nuclear engineer, much less did he command a nuclear sub. He served as an enlisted man on several diesel-electric subs and started, but did not complete, a Naval class in nuclear engineering. He resigned from the Navy (as a lieutenant) before any nuclear subs were commissioned.

    The FEMA guys were just plain stupid.

    NO U

  • Bleh (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NewbieProgrammerMan ( 558327 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @01:54PM (#27458877)

    U.S. Navy reactor operators, the sort who served under Jimmy Carter in the 1950s, were selected primarily for their temperament. ... their Navy job--as at TMI--was to follow the manual. All knowledge was inside the book. So knowing the book was everything. Unfortunately knowing the book isn't the same as knowing the reactor. So knowing the book was everything. Unfortunately knowing the book isn't the same as knowing the reactor.

    No. Just fucking no. There's a significant (and necessary) emphasis on following procedures and getting the books out for any planned change to the plant to make sure you're doing things right. But Cringely makes it sound like nuclear operators are just slightly trained mouth-breathers that only know how to look things up in the book and do what it tells them. I can't speak for the civilian training, but the Navy does NOT do things that way.

    When something goes wrong, they depend on you having enough internalized knowledge about the plant, its controls, and its indicator systems to work out what's going on and (if necessary) do something about it. Once you've got stuff at least marginally under control, *then* you get the books out to check the applicable procedures to make sure you haven't forgotten something, and to figure out how to recover from whatever happened without causing any more problems.

    The Navy puts a lot of effort put into making sure their operators know how and why things work the way they do. They would never have got to the 21st century with the track record they have if all they did was train people to look at the book.

  • Re:Ugh. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Jonner ( 189691 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @01:57PM (#27458899)

    If you read the article, you'd realize it was a very significant wake up call. Death was narrowly avoided because the reactor containment vessel was over-engineered compared to the typical design. The tragedy is that the lesson the public learned was that nuclear power was too dangerous to use at all, when the reality was that it was poorly designed and mismanaged.

  • by NewbieProgrammerMan ( 558327 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @02:20PM (#27459081)

    Don't let Cringely convince you that he actually knows anything about nuclear power plants--those guys had a whole room full of alarms, gauges, meters, etc., giving them a lot of info about the whole plant.

    Shutting down the reactor could probably have been done by the operator within a couple of seconds by flipping a switch. IIRC, though, the automatic safety system shut it down at the beginning of the incident because it detected a situation that warranted it.

  • by marco.antonio.costa ( 937534 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @04:06PM (#27459819)

    As I tire of pointing out and people never tire of not understanding, lack of regulation does not mean free-for-all, might is right or whatever.

    An unregulated nuclear industry does not mean plants can pour waste in other people's property. Since governments regulate commons they must either take responsibility to ensure they are not destroyed or privatize them to internalize the externalities.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Saturday April 04, 2009 @05:37PM (#27460363)

    My sister went to school there, and after two and a half semesters there she was diagnosed with thyroid cancer.

    That's nothing. My grandad went to Lourdes and only six months later he got leukemia. I want to know when people are going to take a stand against the unshielded holy radiation that causes such damage to humans.

    I'm posting this AC because I just know it's going to be marked troll, and you're going to post something like "she's dead now, you jackass" as though that's relevant to the debate. But if you read the Wikipedia article you linked to, several studies have found no evidence of any increase in death due to TMI, especially compelling with the observations that cancer deaths were highest in the area with lowest fallout, and that the area around TMI has high levels of radon and so high background radiation anyway.

    Your sister may have died from cancer (I don't know) and that's certainly a tragedy. Nevertheless, this is not the fault of the nuclear industry, but one of those pieces of shit that happen depressingly regularly in this amoral, godless universe. As a someone who is an engineer or an allied trade (you respect engineers after all, so you must be one) you should know statistics well enough to accept that.

  • by Bigjeff5 ( 1143585 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @07:17PM (#27461049)

    That control room is very similar (if a bit larger and whiter) to the control rooms in gas plants, oil rigs, and pump/flow stations in oil fields today. The stuff may seem old as heck, but really a lot of that stuff you can't just replace with a fancy new computer. The best you can do in the control room is upgrade to digital displays and consolodate sections a little bit. But that may not even be ideal, because the analog systems will be able to run for a lot longer during a power failure than a digital will, and that's a BIG deal.

    One thing you CAN do is send all the information in that control room to a fancy new computer, and then you only need a couple hands-on operators at the plant in case things go very wrong. The rest can be handled by operators sitting in front of a few monitors back at home-base.

    I know you didn't really say it, but I'd wager you were thinking it, and you've got to realize that is not a giant computer. It is a giant control room. It's not like you can replace the steering wheel of your car because you've got a new engine.

  • by anorlunda ( 311253 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @07:38PM (#27461161) Homepage

    I used to work in the nuclear power plant operator training industry. Believe me, whatever else those operators were, they were not cheap. The CEO could not skimp on salaries and hire idiots. In fact, in a time when $40K was an excellent salary, the training costs per operator was more than $1 million.

    On the other hand, there were cultural obstacles. In Europe (Sweden), they hired engineers with masters degrees to become nuclear plant operators. In the USA, they were mostly high school grads who were union members and promoted from running older coal plants. Union politics, not merit decided who got promoted. They were not the best and brightest. Of course in Sweden they also attract the best and brightest to be civil servants. Can you imagine that happening here?

    There are always plenty of suggestions as to where society should apply its best and brightest. It is much harder to place the worst and dumbest. Consider the bottom 25%. They have to have jobs. No matter where you assign them, the public will in some way be depending on those jobs being done well. So filling jobs becomes less of a question of rational allocation of resources, but more a matter of attractiveness and recruiting.

    A plant operator must stand there and do nothing but monitor year after year, yet react swiftly and accurately in those rare seconds of pure terror, and then have the whole world second guess how well they did it. In addition, they have to do shift work for 24x7 operation. Most people think that it is a hell of an unattractive job. I think that the plant owners do a hell of a job trying to find and retain the best people they can get, and to enrich the jobs to make them less boring. It takes much more than deep pockets to succeed.

    So you tell me. You play CEO and tell me how would you convince Google engineers to quit Google and become operators, and how many of the lower quartiles you would assign to invent Google. Convince those bright college students that they don't want to be environmental scientists, but nuclear power plant operators instead.

  • by The_mad_linguist ( 1019680 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @08:07PM (#27461375)

    Fun fact: cows in a field two miles away from Three Mile Island got more radiation from Chernobyl.

  • by NewbieProgrammerMan ( 558327 ) on Saturday April 04, 2009 @08:46PM (#27461643)

    This. Most of the US civilian nuclear power industry is, to say the least, heavily influenced by the military nuclear power industry and the cult of personality surrounding Admiral Rickover. If nobody is in control, nobody can be held accountable when the fan hits the shit.

    Er, in what way is that "nobody is accountable" attitude reminiscent of the nuclear Navy? They're obsessive when it comes to accountability. Every time I saw any fecal matter hit a rotary device, they were pretty damn rigorous about getting to the bottom of it and finding out who did what.

  • by hawk ( 1151 ) <> on Saturday April 04, 2009 @10:51PM (#27462313) Journal

    to adapt a suggestion given by a libertarian acquaintance years ago . . .

    Never mind government regulation. Require a half-trillion dollar liability policy. The insurance company will regulate far tighter and more effectively than the government.

    hawk, who isn't advocating this, but finds it an interesting proposal

  • by Lershac ( 240419 ) on Sunday April 05, 2009 @11:18PM (#27471451) Homepage

    Look fella, you just cannot have that requirement, that a person with full understanding of how the plant operates be on site at all times! What happens if the day shift all gets killed on the busride home from the company outing? or if there are say 10 guys who really have an understanding of the plant, and the plant gets bought out by some crap company and they decide to go pump gas for a living...


    You have to design for the worst case.

Each honest calling, each walk of life, has its own elite, its own aristocracy based on excellence of performance. -- James Bryant Conant