By Art Cashin
On this day in 1979, at 4:00 a.m., the struggle between human response and technology safeguards took a strange turn. It all began with the sudden flash of warning lights in the control panel of an electric utility. Within seconds, the control room was filled with the sound of alarm horns. The Control Room, of course, belonged to the Unit II nuclear reactor on Three Mile Island just south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
One question that has never been answered (and maybe never will be) is - how much influence did a new hit movie have on the actions of authorities during this crisis. Less than two weeks earlier a movie called the "China Syndrome" had opened around the nation. Its premise was that a nuclear meltdown at some power plant could devastate "an area the size of Pennsylvania", as one character in the movie noted.
Anyway, the real life accident happened like this: The flashing lights and klaxon horns were warning that a water pump had shut down. The pump fed water into the steam generator. With no new water coming in, and the reactor core turning more of the existing water into more steam, pressure began to build.
Automatic safety devices sensed the pressure and began to shut down the nuclear reactor. The pressure remained high since the reactor cools slowly. So, the next auto device kicked in. It was a flow valve that drained some of the water (and pressure) from the hot water reserve tanks. So far all the safety devices had
worked perfectly. This valve, however, failed to re-close as it was designed. Not to worry. The computer detected the leak and turned on some pumps to replace the water.
Enter the human factor. Someone saw the tank refilled by the pump and overrode the computer, shutting the pump off. With the other valve still opened, the water continued to drain. The core became exposed and overheated. The fuel jackets began to melt and nuclear pellets spilled into the water. Now we had a crisis.
To mark the day attend a lecture on safety in circuit breakers in this the 21st century. It's the 21st Century for gosh sakes! Relax!....Dave, I sensed you are distracted. My sensors tell me there is doubt in your mind. Do not doubt, Dave. Every contingency is accounted for, accounted for, accounted for......
Thanks again to Mr. Cashin for lending his support to this site while the author has some time off. Regular posting will resume shortly. The above article was originally published as part of "Cashin's Comments" and is reprinted here by express permission of Arthur Cashin. Mr. Cashin is the Director of Floor Operations for UBS Financial Services and a regular markets commentator on CNBC.