Research Paper Help on An Engineering Disaster

An Engineering Disaster


Several disasters have in the past occurred because of engineering failure. From the engineering disasters, the engineers have learnt to correct the mistakes in the current designs and constructions to prevent future tragedies. This research paper looks into the engineering disaster at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant in the United States. The paper focuses on the engineering aspects that are related to the disaster and engineering failures that led to the occurrence of the accident on 28th March, 1979. The conclusion of the paper addresses some of the important lessons the current engineers can learn from the disaster and prevent future engineering disasters.  

1.0 Introduction

Engineering can be defined as the application of science, technology, and the practical knowledge of designing, inventing, constructing, maintaining and improving machines and structures. Disaster, in simple terms, can be defined as an occurrence that causes widespread destruction of property and distress among people and other living things. For this reason, an engineering disaster can be defined as the failure of the engineer to construct a facility according to the set standards and regulations, leading to damage to property or loss of life (Sivashnmugam, 2007).

Things that are fabricated may fail in one way or another in performing their expected functions. Therefore, it is the engineers’ accountability to make structures that are not bound to fail, especially those that can result in disasters. The current knowledge of engineering is advanced to enable the engineering learners and designers construct and design structures with fewer chances of failure.

To understand the engineering disasters, it is important to look at certain aspects of engineering that result in poor engineering choices and practices. The consideration of engineering failure to lead to an engineering disaster is the public perception of risk level. The main cause of engineering disasters can come from human factors resulting from ethical failure, hence leading to the accident (Weart, 2012). The flow design of the structure can lead to an accident if the practice is unethical. In some cases, the resources used in the process may fail to perform their functions, hence leading to the collapse of the plant and resulting to an accident. Human error in engineering disasterss results from the deficiency of following engineering ethics.    

1.1 Objective

This research paper aims to provide a deeper understanding of the engineering disaster that caused the accident at the Three Mile Island and what the plant operators have to undertake while trying to prevent the accident.

1.2 Scope of the Topic

The scope of the research paper is to identify the engineering failure with a focus on the nuclear reactor and thermo-hydraulics that caused the partial meltdown of the plant. Some of the operation breakdowns and lack of adequate information and knowledge of the plant operation are also considered in the discussions.

2.0 The Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Accident

The Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident is an engineering disaster that took place in the year 1979 in the United States of America. The aftermath of the nuclear power plant accident resulted in the review of emergency response plans, operation of the reactor and training, human engineering and radiation protection in the nuclear power plants (Campbell, 2008). All these changes are established in accordance with the engineering ethics to manage future accidents that may result from the malfunction of the equipment, design problem, and engineering failures.

Following the event that took place in the plant, one of the two reactors developed a system failure. The system failure could have resulted from either electrical or mechanical fault of the plant that prevented the main water feed pump from water to the steam generator. The function of the water feed pump was to reduce the amount of heat that was being generated in the core reactor. The engineering design of creating a cooling system for the plant was a good initiative for the plant operations. The pump failure caused an indefinite shutdown of the turbine generator as well as the reactor.

The system failure resulted to pressure from the primary system of the plant to rise. To ease the built up pressure, the automated relieve valve located at the apex of the pressurizer remained opened even after the pressure reduced to the recommended level. The failure of the valve can be considered as an engineering failure to carry out routine maintenance of the plant system. Ethics of engineering requires that routine check up and maintenance are an important measure to ensure safety at the plant. The plant operators should not assume that systems are okay despite them showing that the operations are normal (Weart, 2012).

The plant staff never realized that the valve had failed because the SCADA system at the control room was indicating that the valve was closed. The failure of the valve caused the primary coolant to drain off hence the removal of the residual decay heat was retained. The accumulation of the heat resulted in the damage of the reactor core, leading to the catastrophic accident. The malfunction of the valve never affected other instruments installed for the plant reactor. Hence, there was no information that things were not right.

The cooling system for any nuclear reactor plant is the main equipment that should be given priority in management and maintenance. Nuclear reactors produced much heat hence safety of the plant greatly depends on the management of the cooling system (Campbell, 2008). The engineering design was in such a way that it ensured water flow to reduce the heat being generated by the nuclear reactor. The excess heat caused the rupture and the melting of the fuel pellets with further findings revealing that the about half the core had melted during the early stages of the catastrophe. The early damages realized can pose a question as to whether there were a routine checkup and maintenance of the plant by the engineers.        

2.1 Human Factors

Human factor is the key component of any engineering undertaking. The engineers that played a role in designing and constructing the Three Mile Island Nuclear Reactor had the responsibility of training the staff on the emergency response procedure to avoid accidents. Human factor, in this case, comprises the engineers on site that are supposed to enhance or increase the efficiency and performance of the workplace. The engineers are expected to understand the complex industrial systems such as the one that existed in the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Reactor plant. Engineering as a discipline contribute to the evolution and designs of equipment, system and with environmental conservation (Newton-Matza, 2014).

The human factor that was concerned with the design and the construction of the plant were keen to realize that the plant needed a lot of coolings. The engineer therefore ensured the construction of the water cooling system that later failed to work efficiently. The design also considered human factor in designing systems that also need other human involvement to manage and to reduce the risk on workers. The engineers designed a safety device that showed all the plant operation and centered them in one control room. The parameters were easy to read, and all the parts experiencing problem were easily indicated for the convenience of the operators to respond to. Human cognitive constraint is very important to high-risk plants such as the nuclear reactors. Misjudgment by the operator made them turn off the emergency cooling pump, and also the operator ignoring the alarm that indicated that the full capacity of the containment building sump. The over capacitated sump caused the rupture of the diaphragm thereby resulting in radioactive leakage from the containment structure (Kramer, 2009).    

Human factor engineering contributes to ensuring the safety, quality and condition of the plant and the equipment and facilities being used in the plant. Engineering disasters frequently occur from the system malfunctions and can accumulate with human negligence or misunderstanding of the problem hence complicating the problem more. The engineers are expected to install equipment that are highly reliable and that have a backup system. The backup system can initiate a normal function of the plant hence preventing disasters. Suppose that nuclear plant had an effective backup system, the loss that was experienced would have not occurred in the fort place (Ibid).

The backup system can take the form of manual operation as opposed to the automated operations. Manual operation can be difficult to handle, but it can work in preventing disaster in case of accidents or managing the failed equipment. The engineers on site would have known the sequence of the problems that were to be encountered hence a quick response action would be in place to stop some of the plant activities that were likely to be damaged. It took the plant engineers to figure out how to stop the chemical reaction of the melting fuel that created a large hydrogen bubble in the dome. The human engineers were expected to figure out on how to manage the Hydrogen accumulation in the pressure vessel that was holding the reactor took the engineering experts’ days to figure out how to manage the hydrogen so that it could not mix with oxygen to cause fire. This brings in human factor as an engineering disaster that contributed to the plant accident (Weart, 2012).

The engineering disaster also resulted from the engineering design of inadequate information system. The information system failure in the control room would have given a warning so that the operator puts necessary emergency measure in place. The exploration of the occurrence revealed that the LED indicating that there was a malfunction of the valve was blocked by a warning sign. The instruments in the control room were not set with a specific color since some were red in a normal operating condition while other showed green in the same operation (Sivashnmugam, 2007). The engineering mistake that was also made in the setting was that the instrument was set to indicate only a closed signal that would relieve the valve without indication the actual position of the valve.

Another engineering failure was the lack of reliability assurance the plant machine and equipment. The engineers and the operators on site did admit that the pressure reliever valve had experienced some problem before and had not been resolved. The engineer did not pay attention to the problem hence choosing to neglect it and to keep the plant running (Newton-Matza, 2014). The engineering assumption can be argued on the basis of inadequate training of the operator and the engineers. The Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant utility management contracted the employees who were operating the firm. The contracted team had no proper knowledge of the nuclear power plant operations including the reactor and the thermal process.

The contracted team also lack training on the emergency response undertakings and the measures they would take to avoid the accident. The final engineering failure that was caused by human factor is that the design structure did not meet the ethics of unexpected events. Safety equipment for a nuclear plant should be designed to handle a certain degree of nuclear accidents (Kramer, 2009). The kind of mishap that occurred at the Three Mile Island was more than the assumed system failure, and none of the specialized engineers found it complicated to manage the accident.            

2.2 The Design Flows

The design of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Reactor was done and constructed by Babcock and Wilson. The plant had two pressurized water reactors in separate buildings. The second unit, where the accident occurred, was rated to produce 959 megawatts of power. The feed water pump meant for cooling the reactor system is the one that caused the accident leading to disaster. The operator responded to the pump failure by injecting the auxiliary, which also failed to work since the outlet valve was closed hence preventing water from reaching the steam generator. Discovery of the closed valve was realized few minutes later after the accident has already taken place. The pressurizer relief valve was designed in such a way that it automatically responded to the increased temperature and pressure in the main system.

The shutdown of the nuclear reactor caused a pressure drop in the reactor. The valve that was expected to close after the pressure dropped in the reactor failed to close. The massive system failure was a great set back to the engineers who designed the system and thus resulting in engineering disaster (Weart, 2012). The operator on site expectation was that the valves worked automatically as they were set in the first plant operation. The failure of the valves for a period of two hours spilled over 80 tons of water coolant from the quench tank.

The low pressure in the reactor tanks initiated the emergency core cooling system to drain water into the reactor system. The unexpected change in the system made the water and steam escape through the valves as the coolant water gets into the pressurizer. The high temperatures in the reactors made the steam rise in the reactors main cooling structure. The imbalance of steam and water in the reactor cooling system because of pumping more water caused a vibration into the plant hence prompting the operator to shut down the plant (Kramer, 2009). The head made the water in the cooling system to boil up hence damaged and exposed the core of the reactor. The temperature of the reactor cooling system became high such that it caused the plant meltdown. The water reactions during the accident lead to the production of hydrogen gas that resulted in the explosion after about ten hours. The explosion further caused damage allowing water to flow into the quench tank hence flooding the vessel containment floor (Sivashnmugam, 2007).

The engineering disaster was experienced when the whole system functions collapse. The water that was mixed with radioactive was then pumped to the ventilation system of the auxiliary building where the radioactive elements escaped to the external environment (Spellman & Whiting, 2005). Engineering ethics expects the engineers to play a role in conserving the environment by establishing structures and equipment that do not degrade the environment.

The engineering disaster realized from the collapse of the nuclear reactor is initiated by the irregular movement of the cooling water. Second to that, there was poor emergency operation in the plant to deal with the unexpected accidents. The plant operators were not the regular workers, but they worked und contract. Poor planning and design of the whole unit contributed to the lack of appropriate emergency response protocols. Lack of knowledge by the contracted operators on matters dealing with thermo-fluid also accelerated the impact of the accident (Kramer, 2009).          

2.3 Material/System Failure

System malfunction in the Three Mile Island accident is the key issue in the engineering disaster experienced in the case. The system failure resulted from electrical failure of the condensate polishing system pump for the pressured water reactor (Newton-Matza, 2014). The proceeding failure affected the main feed water pump as well. The failure of the two pumps made the turbines to stop running, which triggered the reactor to shut down indefinitely. Further system failure was experienced when the reactor continued to generate heat that was not being eliminated by the steam generator in reactor (Campbell, 2008). The condensate polishing and steam generator can be blamed on lack of competence in the design structure of the whole process. The process was supposed to be designed to work independently so that one system failure could not affect the following system.

The second system failure was experienced in the ancillary feed water pump, which failed to run thus prompting the activation of the auxiliary pump. The nuclear plant was undergoing maintenance prior to the accident hence some of the valves were closed and were not opened after the work completed. The failure to keep the valves open after the maintenance is considered an engineering disaster that contributed to the plant failure. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission recognized the failure by the engineers responsible for the maintenance and the rule of the commission demanded the plant shut down (Sivashnmugam, 2007).

The third failure is that of the Auxiliary system which failed to activate automatically. The engineering error in this system failure resulted from the increase in pressure in the primary loop due to the heat removal. The pressure triggered the automatic opening of the pilot operated relief valve situated at the uppermost of the pressurizer. The pilot relief operated valve was expected to close automatically upon the release of the excess pressure, but it failed due to mechanical breakdown. The valve remained open hence exposing the coolant water from the main system where the complication developed (Spellman & Whiting, 2005).

2.4 Environmental and Health Effects

An accident can be considered as an engineering disaster if it directly or indirectly has a negative impact on the project, human or the environment. Various agencies played a role in determining the impact level on the environment and radiative effect the accident had on human. The accident did not lead to losing of life of life, and the reports tabled revealed stated that the radioactive spillage had negligible impact on human and the environment. The engineering disaster was experienced by the plant due to the destruction of the TMI-2 (Newton-Matza, 2014).   

2.5 Precautionary Measures

Engineering project just like the Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant is doomed to fail and be considered as an engineering disaster if they fail to follow the ethics of the profession. Some of the obvious reasons that result to engineering disasters include poor planning, inappropriate resources, and inaccurate specification during the project construction phase. Senior engineers are the key assets to project and with their absence, the project may not be fixed correctly. Poor designs, tools and equipment for the plant are supposed to apply in the entire project cycle. Personal error, in deficient design and system failure, are the main attributes of the engineering disaster at the Three Mile Nuclear Reactor plant. The impact of the accident brought about various changes in the nuclear reactor dealings in the United States (Spellman & Whiting, 2005).

To advance the effectiveness of the nuclear reactors, the companies are expected to strengthen and modernize the designs of the plant and make improvements to the facilities and equipment. The first priority area is the worker’s safety and plant operation. Improving equipment gives consideration to auxiliary feed water system, responsible for the plant cooling, fire protection and isolation of the containment structures. The plant design should be in such a way that it shut down automatically in case of system failure. The emergency shutdown will prevent further destruction of the plant (Campbell, 2008). Human error can lead to engineering failure hence all the plant operators are expected to receive adequate training on the plant operation.

The engineers are supposed to enhance the plant operator by conducting trainings and workshops. The plant management should also be in a position of acting swiftly in case of an emergency and not waiting until the damage is done.  The nuclear reactor operators should take the responsibility of inspecting the damage that occurs in the shuttle’s thermal protection system and create backup repairs when necessary (Campbell, 2008). The plant chief engineer should develop an all-inclusive inspection plan for the staff to determine the structural integrity of components of the plant. The engineers are not supposed to give up from engineering structural materials that cannot cause accidents.

The plant should engage in safety inspection of the plant in order to identify some of the damages or system failures before resulting in engineering disaster. One of the contributing factors to the accident was related to the plant management hiring unqualified personnel operate the systems. The state should take the task of establishing an institution that offer special training on nuclear reaction. The program should be designed according to the plant.  The institution will, in the long run, create a specialized workforce in the nuclear industry by having competent system operators.

The nuclear industries all over the continent should come to gather and share ideas and information concerning the plant operation and management. The nuclear reactor companies should establish a performance-oriented workforce I in programs dealing with safety issues. No engineering work can be completely trusted as perfect; therefore, the nuclear reacting company should invest on emergency response trainings to create awareness to the employees . The industries are expected to create public awareness and improvement of the plant operation policies. In the Three Mile Island Nuclear power plant, the engineers failed to install instruments that would monitor the temperatures. The plant policy also lacked training programs for the plant operator 

3.0 Conclusion

Plant operators who fail to follow engineering ethics just like the Three Mile Island plant operators were not keen on monitoring the plant equipment is the root cause of industrial engineering disasters. Engineering is a professional career. Thus, the duties and responsibilities should be taken precisely. The overall impact of the Three Mile Island accident can be blamed on the engineering work that was carried out and the human factor as the contributor to the engineering disaster (Newton-Matza, 2014).

 The nature of the accident brought about various policy implementations and the structural design of nuclear power plants. Nuclear is the most dangerous power source that should be handled with great care. The newly constructed nuclear power plant must have a training program on safety and reliability of the plant operators.   Just as in the case, little assumptions and human negligence resulted in the destruction of the TMI-1 plant. To conclude, nuclear power is reliable abut it needs more management, control, and scientific research to help improve the plant operations and prevent engineering disasters (Weart, 2012).

3.1 References

Campbell, B. C. (2008). Disasters, Accidents, and Crises in American History: A reference guide to the nation’s most catastrophic events. New York: Facts On File.

Kramer, W. M. (2009). Disaster Planning and Control. Tulsa, Okla: PennWell/Fire Engineering.

Newton-Matza, M. (2014). Disasters and Tragic Events. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO.

Sivashnmugam, P. (2007). Basic Environmental Science and Engineering. New Delhi: New India Pub. agency.

Spellman, F. R., & Whiting, N. E. (2005). Safety Engineering: Principles and Practices. Lanham, Md: Government Institutes.

Weart, S. R. (2012). The Rise of Nuclear Fear. Cambridge Mass: Harvard University Press.