University of Pittsburgh

commons room

Power Primer

Written by Cara J. Hayden

In a campus lecture hall, a professor begins telling a dramatic story about a near-catastrophe in the nation’s history. The students listen while quietly munching on pizza and cookies.

“It was 4 a.m., dark outside,” he says, setting the scene. “It seemed to be no big deal at first, but then …” He pauses, trying to convey the seriousness of the calamity, which took place before most of the students were born.

The professor, Larry Foulke, is talking about an accident that occurred 30 years ago at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant, near Harrisburg, Pa. A cascade of problems—human error, design flaws, and component failures—led to the partial meltdown of nuclear core material in Reactor 2. As the event unfolded, citizens across Pennsylvania and beyond were gripped with fear at the possibility of a full core meltdown, potential nuclear explosion, and widespread radioactive contamination.

At the time of the accident, Foulke was a nuclear engineer with Westinghouse in Pittsburgh, a few hundred miles from the TMI plant. He, too, was riveted by the events as they were reported. Eventually, over the course of 15 tense hours, the meltdown was stopped and disaster was averted.

It was a very stressful time to be in the industry, Foulke tells the students during his presentation. In the wake of TMI, public perception of nuclear power took a sharply negative turn. Thousands of antinuclear protesters began marching in Washington, D.C., and plans for future power plants were put on hold.

The twist, though, is that the incident at TMI—which ultimately caused no harmful radiological health effects—vastly improved the safety of the nuclear industry. Analysis of the TMI episode brought sweeping change to the industry in operator training, reactor engineering, control room design, radiation protection, emergency response, regulatory oversight, and much more.

Today, there are more than 400 nuclear power reactors operating routinely in more than 30 countries, including the United States. The tremendous worldwide need for energy, coupled with an impractical reliance on limited and environmentally harmful fossil fuels, is putting nuclear power in the spotlight.

Foulke, a 40-year veteran of the nuclear power industry, is the director of the Swanson School’s nuclear engineering program. His TMI presentation came about through an invitation from the Pitt Students for Nuclear Energy club. The group put together a public panel event with several experts to mark the 30th anniversary of the TMI accident and to discuss the status of the nuclear industry. (Pitt alumnus and trustee Richard Thornburgh was governor of Pennsylvania when the accident took place; in 2007, he donated his TMI historical archives to the University of Pittsburgh.)

During his talk, Foulke—a slim, energetic man who wears spectacles and carefully parts his silver hair to one side—explains that people are often surprised to learn that there are environmental benefits to nuclear power. For example, no CO2 is released in the operation of nuclear power plants. He also says that plant operators now get more training than top commercial airline pilots. Foulke encourages the students to think of additional ways to educate their peers and the public about the positive aspects of nuclear power.

The industry is at a crucial turning point, and young engineers like those at Foulke’s lecture will shape what happens next.  A look back may help as they move ahead.