Using Chaos Theory to analyze Three Mile Island and Other Incidents

A recent string of incidents at some power plants suggests that the failures of Three Mile Island (TMI) still haunt us. Although reams of reports and research have been published concerning the various events leading up to this disaster, there has been no in-depth discussion, to my knowledge, about the faulty valve that was at the origin of the problems. I believe it is my duty to start that discussion. The final report cited a malfunction of the pilot-operated relief valve (PORV) as the cause of the accident. An apparently overlooked but crucial fact is that this valve had become stuck in the open position nine times before the accident. Control and relief valves are quite often involved when incidents occur in power plants. Considerable effort has been made to improve the technology behind them. However I believe that it is necessary to delve deeper into non-linear physics in order to find the real causes of these failures. Chaos theory was still in its infancy at the time of the TMI accident. Nevertheless, it was already known that in a system no longer at equilibrium – for example, when a relief valve opens – new, self-organized structures appear. The existence of these structures is prolonged by exchanges with the surroundings. Prigogine named them dissipative structures in order to associate the two ideas of order and waste. In the figure below, we can see the size of the jet escaping from the Papin valve. This free jet, formed by billions of billions of self-organized molecules, is an example of a dissipative structure. The escaping fluid possesses considerable kinetic energy (Mach 5 for the Papin valve) and the motive power is thus expressed in tens of megawatts. The jet dissipates freely and does so using a considerable amount of space. At TMI, as in most facilities, fluid flowing past the relief valve is recovered in a collector. The jet is now confined, which creates dangerous operating zones in the device. The dissipative structures are constrained in their ability to degrade the kinetic energy contained in the fluid. The part of order which they contain hinders the return to equilibrium. Chaos appears. Molecules amass in an indescribable manner, degrading the kinetic energy of the flow into heat, vibration, noise, etc. The installation can experience significant disturbances. At the TMI facility, the disturbances caused by the fluid ridding itself of its motive power must have had such an impact on the valve rod during its opening that it became mechanically impossible to close itself. In other incidents, the valve is no longer leakproof when closed. Do you believe that chaos was introduced into the relief valve at Three Mile Island? Or was there another cause? Sincerely,

Chaos visualization at :

Michel Pluviose February 2013