The situation at a Japanese nuclear plant in the wake of a natural disaster has similarities to the 1979 Three Mile Island crisis in the United States but is "far more serious," a local nuclear engineer says.

Orangeburg native Dr. John Till is founder of Neeses-based Risk Assessment Corp. Till is internationally recognized as a leading authority on how radiation affects life.

Till said he will never forget the mishap at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in central Pennsylvania, on March 28, 1979. For five days, there was fear the reactor at the plant might unleash tons of radioactivity and perhaps even explode. Although there was little release of radiation and no evidence of long-term harm to the public, the incident brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, nuclear reactor operator training and radiation protection.

Till himself was asked to evaluate the safety of a system designed by the Barnwell-based Chem-Nuclear plant that was installed at Three Mile Island to process contaminated water in the containment building 17 months after the accident.

Till said the design of the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant reactor is similar to TMI but the potential risk is greater.

"The reason is we have six reactors and not just one," Till said. "If they can stabilize the situation by regaining control of reactor temperature and the storage pools, the core will stay intact.

"If it can't be controlled, it's hard to say where things could go. I don't want to make it more than it is already because it's still too soon to tell."

The troubles at the Japanese nuclear complex began with a 9.0-magnitude earthquake and tsunami March 11. Power outages destroyed the backup generators needed for the reactors' cooling systems, resulting in rising temperatures. Four of the plant's six reactors have experienced damage to the structures housing the reactor cores.

Till said the accident scenario does not compare "at all" to the 1986 Chernobyl disaster in the then-Soviet Union. There, a reactor exploded, spreading radioactive material over a wide area.

"These reactors withstood an earthquake more severe than they were designed to," Till said. "The quakes did not create this situation. The cores remained intact and they were shut down as they should be.

"The problem is the backup generators and batteries are below ground level. Capacity in those systems was compromised by the tsunami. That's when the problem started."

Till said he is unfamiliar with where American nuclear plants locate their generators.

"I don't know American systems," Till said. "We locate most reactors where there would not be this kind of accident from earthquakes and tsunamis.

"The new reactors are not designed like (the Japanese complex). This disaster is as bad as one can envision. There will be lessons learned from it."

Thus far, Till said there has been no major risk of radiation exposure to the greater Japanese population beyond workers at the nuclear complex. He noted that risk can be minimized and controlled.

Till said he and "all of my colleagues are frustrated with the lack of information the Japanese government has put out. This is an extraordinary event. I would assume that they are taking many measurements of air and surface readings but I have seen none of that data.

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"You can't just tell the public, ‘There is nothing wrong and everyone is safe.' In the U.S., people would never allow so little information to be given. I would not, either."

With more than 30 years of experience, Till has developed not only new approaches to research in the field of environmental dose analysis, but also developed a new standard of ethics for public studies. His work has been called groundbreaking, technically and in terms of public participation.

The most important factor involves the "huge gap" of understanding about nuclear technology and radiation exposure by government leaders, the media and the general public. Till said even the American nuclear industry hasn't caught on to the importance of communicating that information.

"This has been my mission, particularly over the last five years," Till said. "If this incident doesn't serve as a teachable moment on the importance of communication, then we missed the boat.

"In the U.S., we have a great system to evacuate folks in the event of a nuclear disaster. Where we will fail is getting them back into these areas. People will want to know what the contamination means to them in terms of risk and what they can do to minimize that.

"How do you explain that to a half-million people? We are not well prepared for that here."

Till said the nuclear industry and scientists need to do more to build confidence in people with regard to providing information and knowledge.

"They will never fully understand the technology and what radiation means," Till said. "We have to get back to a system to rely on individuals who know and understand this."

Contact the writer: psarata@timesanddemocrat.com and 803-533-5540.

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