March 28, 2014 | Mark Paradies

Three Mile Island Accident Anniversary: The Nuclear Industry Discovers Human Factors

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Five days of panic. 140,000 residents voluntarily evacuate. Fourteen years of clean-up.

The 35th anniversary of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Disaster.

On the midnight shift on March 28, 1979, things started to go wrong at TMI. A simple instrument problem started a chain of events that led to a core meltdown.

I can still remember that morning.

I was learning to operate a nuclear plant (S1W near Idaho Falls, ID) at the time. I was in the front seat of the bus riding out to the site. The bus driver had a transistor radio on and the news reported that there had been a nuclear accident at TMI. They switched to a live report from a farmer across the river. He said he could smell the radiation in the air. Also, his cows weren’t giving as much milk.

the midnight shift on March 28, 1979, things started to go wrong at TMI. A simple instrument problem started a chain of events that led to a core meltdown.

I was learning to operate a nuclear plant (S1W near Idaho Falls, ID) at the time. I can still remember that morning. I was in the front seat of the bus riding out to the site. The bus driver had a transistor radio on and the news reported that there had been a nuclear accident at TMI. They switched to a live report from a farmer across the river. He said he could smell the radiation in the air. Also, his cows weren’t giving as much milk.

Years later, I attended the University of Illinois while also being a Assistant Professor (teaching midshipmen naval weapons and naval history). I was the first in a new program that was a cooperative effort between the Nuclear Engineering and Psychology Departments to research human factors and nuclear power plants. My advisor and mentor was Dr. Charles O. Hopkins, a human factors expert. In 1981-1982, he headed group of human factors professionals who wrote a report for the NRC on what they should do to more fully consider human factors in nuclear reactor regulation.

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As part of my studies I developed a course on the accident at TMI and published my thesis on function allocation and automation for the next generation of nuclear power plants.

So, each year when the anniversary of the accident comes around I think back to those days and how little we have learned (or should I say applied) about using good human factors to prevent industrial accidents.

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