Nuclear Power and Me

Three MIle Island Nuclear Power Plant suffered a partial meltdown in March, 1979
The Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in Pennsylvania suffered a partial meltdown in March 1979. After the meltdown, cancer rates within ten miles of the plant increased 64% according to a study by a Columbia University research team.

Update: Nov. 27, 2014: Popular Mechanics posted this CBS 60 Minutes drone-video of Chernobyl taken in its Zone of Alienation, a safe area. I’ve added it to my article for context. 

Here is an excerpt from my resume about my work in the nuclear power industry in 1975:

Engineering Technician at Ingersoll-Rand Company. Designed and serviced pumps and condensers for nuclear power plants; assisted engineers on service calls; toured and worked inside nuclear power plants; trained in construction and operation of nuclear power plants.

I didn’t last long at Ingersoll-Rand before they fired me for incompetence. But during the six months before my meltdown they sent me inside nuclear power plants to learn how to operate and maintain the pumps and condensers used to move and cool liquids inside the plants. Under the supervision of licensed nuclear engineers I learned how to inspect and fix pumps—some of them the size of little houses.

The plant executives had the habit of inviting visiting engineers and technicians to lunch, where their supervisors would present short overviews of plant operation, describe safety features and speculate about the future of nuclear energy in the United States.

They predicted that a thousand nuclear power plants would be built in the USA by the year 2000. The plants would be “fail-safe” due to their many redundant safety features. As it turned out, their enthusiasm was misguided.

To date only 438 nuclear power plants have been built in the entire world. Sixty-one operate inside the United States. Their safety record is abysmal.

Several plants in Michigan are located on the banks of our great fresh-water lakes. Radioactive waste-products are stored in cooling-ponds on each of these sites just yards away from the purest fresh-water on planet Earth.

Highly radioactive, spent-fuel rods are periodically collected and dry-stored at the Lake Michigan Zion facility, which experts warned in 2015 pose risks not only to the Great Lakes, but to the entire region. This lethal dry-storage facility and the contaminated ponds at the power-plants themselves are growing in size and radioactivity year after year after year. Editors note: On October 25, 2016, EnergySolutions announced that the Zion plant is 88% shut down and that all of its high radiation fuel rods are now contained inside an on-site ISFSI (Independent Spent Fuel Storage Installation), where they will remain until someone figures out what to do with them. The entire facility will be closed in 2017. 

We are one earthquake away from catastrophic contamination of up to ten percent of the world’s fresh water supply.  

Inside Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant
31 people died at the Russian Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in April 1986. The city was evacuated and remains uninhabited. Click this link for a drone-video of the site.

Anyway, after the lectures—which were accompanied by short films and slide presentations—executives opened the sessions for questions from the audience. I was one of those nerds who believed they were serious, so I did ask a lot of questions. (I was a pontificator, even then).

I asked: What is the half-life of the radioactive waste produced in this plant?  Where is the waste stored? How much waste will this plant produce over the next 30 years? What happens if there is a serious earthquake?  How are meltdowns prevented? What are the consequences of operator errors?  What will happen when the plant ages and comes to the end of its estimated useful life?

Fukushima Nuclear Plant
Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan experienced catastrophic failure during the tsunami in March 2011. Over 300 workers were severely irradiated; six deaths were blamed on the tsunami itself. The site will never recover.

It wasn’t long before my supervisor called me into his office and advised me to keep my questions to myself and do my job better. But it was not to be. I learned a life lesson: when the boss tells you to be quiet and just do your job—hold on to your hat. It’s too late. You will be fired as soon as the permissions and the paperwork are done.

Maybe I was incompetent. I don’t know. After being fired I went into counseling for depression. I re-entered MSU and studied mathematics and electrical engineering. I ended up designing machinery—mostly in the food and beverage industry—until I retired six years ago in 2008.

Everyone is familiar with the tear-spout coffee lids used on foam coffee cups. Folks drink their coffee without removing the lid. Yeah, I designed the first one and all the tooling needed to produce it; it was a team effort, of course. Everyone buys orange juice and milk cartons with tamper-proof safety caps. Yeah. I did those, too. I share the patent, which proves it.  

What am I most proud of?  I didn’t design a damn thing on that Fukushima disaster, which is contaminating the Pacific Ocean and its fish stocks, perhaps to the end of time. 

Billy Lee

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