Jack DeVine, a nuclear professional for 46 years, was the speaker for the January meeting of the Senior Men’s Club of Aiken. He was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy in 1965 and was a nuclear submarine officer for five years.

DeVine worked in commercial nuclear power for many years and held key management roles in the cleanup of the damaged Three Mile Island plant following the nuclear accident in 1979. Later in his career, he co-founded and led a nuclear engineering consulting firm, and he served as chief closure officer at SRS, responsible for decommissioning and waste management work at the site. Jack is still very much engaged in the post-Fukushima issues in Japan after a tsunami caused major flooding to the plant and surrounding areas in 2011.

DeVine recalled that in 1979, before the TMI incident, the use of nuclear energy was expanding rapidly in the U.S., providing safe, clean and economical electricity. The industry target was 1,000 nuclear plants in the U.S. by the turn of the century. TMI changed that.

Today, there are only 104 operating nuclear plants in the United States. Reflecting on these numbers, DeVine noted that the accident had a large, negative impact on utility investment and public acceptance, despite the fact that it caused no injuries to people or harm to the environment.

There were many lessons learned from the accident, and in the post-TMI years, many advances in plant design and construction were infused into the nuclear industry. Operational practices and training were greatly enhanced by the cooperative efforts of utilities through the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations which set standards and conducted extensive peer reviews on operational readiness, operator instruction, training methods and accident readiness, among many others.

In the three decades following the TMI accident, there were dramatic improvements in all aspects of nuclear plant performance in the U.S. Just a few years ago, the U.S. was on the cusp of a “nuclear renaissance” of new plant construction. Utilities were considering right sized plant designs (600 to 1,000 megawatt) balancing the cost of siting, licensing, construction and operation to enable a competitive alternative to coal, gas or oil over the plant lifetime.

The 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan was a major blow to nuclear power, according to DeVine. That natural disaster caused the deaths of over 20,000 people in Japan, and it also damaged emergency power systems at four nuclear plants in the region (some of those at the Fukushima station), leading to three nuclear core meltdowns and releases of radioactivity to the surrounding areas. Although there were no fatalities or injuries attributable to the radioactivity releases, large land areas were contaminated and many people were forced to evacuate.

To this day, more than 100,000 people in the Fukushima area are not allowed to return to their homes. DeVine pointed out that the radiation levels in most of these areas is quite low compared to levels considered harmful, but that the combination of public fear, liability concerns and lack of consensus among local, regional and national government bodies has thus far prevented needed agreement on how to proceed.

DeVine said the Fukushima accident was absolutely preventable. The sea barrier intended to prevent seawater flooding was not high enough to deal with a tsunami as serious as occurred, and many plant safety and electrical distribution equipment were located in lower parts of the plant and were “drowned” by the tsunami. Other nuclear plants nearby had safety systems on higher ground and survived without serious problem.

In short, the failures of those several plants at the Fukushima site did not reveal any fatal flaws in nuclear technology, according to DeVine, rather, they revealed design flaws that are understandable and correctable. But the huge impact on many Japanese people, on the energy production in Japan and on the Japanese economy is being felt on the nuclear industry in Japan and worldwide.

DeVine summarized, “The ball is in our court. For 50 years, nuclear has provided power more safely than all other major power supplies, even considering the accidents at TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima. The world has learned and shared much about peaceful nuclear power applications. But we need to make continuing improvements in design and operation of our plants. We need to have educators reach the present and upcoming generations to understand the risks and rewards of all types of electric power plant production. We need to make radiation and nuclear technology understandable, and we need to get to a point that energy decisions by our political leaders and public perception are based on solid, scientific facts.”