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Introduction:

On March 22, 1975, Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Athens, Alabama caught fire1. Although the fire was a dramatic sight, there was minimal damage, no lives were lost and no radioactive materials were emitted2. Nonetheless, the fire generated a substantial public outcry in opposition to nuclear power and prompted significant new government regulation of the generation of nuclear power.

The 1970s was a time of increased reliance on nuclear technology for civilian power generation3; it also was a time characterized by increased fear of nuclear power. The fire at Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant heightened the atomic anxiety of the time, prompted Congress to pass new statutes governing the use of nuclear power, and led the newly created Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to issue sweeping new safety regulations. The fire also sparked a dialogue in the media and among American citizens about the potential hazards of commercial nuclear power plants.  After the fire, several news outlets focused on what could have happened at Brown’s Ferry instead of the actual events of the March 22nd fire. In addition, popular media, such as comics and movies, produced in the late 1970s highlighted the potential doomsday effects of nuclear meltdowns. Although the fire at Brown’s Ferry resulted in nominal damage, the media and government framed the fire as a disaster because of the fear that the accident inspired in American society. The Brown’s Ferry fire of 1975 marked a turning point in public opinion the “disaster that wasn’t“ prompted a heightened fear of nuclear power plants and turned the public against the use of nuclear power to create electricity.

Background of Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Plant:

On May 18, 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt established the Tennessee Value Authority4. The TVA’s purpose, as listed on its charter, was to bolster the economy of the impoverished Tennessee Valley by improving navigation and preventing flooding of the Tennessee River and its tributaries5. The TVA built dams along the Tennessee River for these purposes. In addition to improving navigation and preventing flooding, these dams produced electricity. By 1935, electricity generation and transmission became the primary focus of the TVA. The agency delivered low-cost electricity to inhabitants of the Tennessee Valley reaching areas that had never had access to electricity before. Although the TVA attempted to negotiate with private utilities, the agency faced a problem when stockholders in Alabama Power filed a lawsuit “challenging the legality of a government enterprise competing with private industries”6. In February of 1935, U.S. District Justice Cobb ruled the TVA unconstitutional7. However, this decision was soon overturned in the 1936 Supreme Court Case Ashwater vs. TVA. The ruling in Ashwater vs. TVA "established a principal for federally owned and operated companies to generate and distribute electricity directly to customers", enabling the TVA to expand8.

The Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Plant, named after a ferry that operated at the site until the mid 1900s, was the TVA’s first nuclear plant9. Construction of the plant began in 196610. The Unit One Reactor began commercial operation on August 1, 1974, and the Unit Two Reactor began commercial operation shortly after, on March 1, 197511. When Brown’s Ferry began its commercial operation, most Americans supported the use of nuclear power to generate electricity12. This widespread support of nuclear plants was due largely to the public’s and government’s desire to stop relying on foreign oil. In 1973, the United States and other Western nations experienced an oil crisis as a result of the Middle East Oil Embargo. On October 6, 1973 the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries embargoed their oil to the United States and other countries that supported Israel during the Arab-Israeli War13. During the embargo, the price of oil nearly quadrupled, reaching almost twelve dollars per barrel14. The unreliability of the supply of foreign oil created an incentive within the United States to create our own energy. Nuclear power plants provided a means to accomplish that goal, and therefore was supported by public opinion15.

The Fire:

The fire at Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Plant in Athens, Alabama occurred on March 22, 1975, as a result of employees doing regular maintenance in the plant’s Cable Spreading Room. The workers were pulling wires from the Reactor Building, located on one side of the Cable Spreading Room, to the Control Room, located directly above the Cable Spreading Room. In order to connect the wires from the Reactor Building to the Control Room, the workers had to cut an opening through the fire stop walls separating the Cable Spreading Room from the Reactor Building and Control Room. After the workmen successfully connected the wires between the two rooms, they resealed the opening in the wall with pillow-type foamed polyurethane, a type of foam cushioning often used to insulate homes16. Two workmen then used candles to check the resealed section of the wall for air leaks into the Reactor Building. The workers observed the candles to see if the flame would flicker, a sign that air was passing through the polyurethane barrier.  While the workers were examining the recently sealed hole, the candle flame was drawn into a crack in the polyurethane, igniting the pillow-like material, and in turn igniting the flammable plastic insulated control cables. No fire extinguishers were immediately available in the Cable Spreading Room, and after unsuccessfully attempting to extinguish the fire themselves, the workmen called emergency services. 

The emergency service workers also had difficulty extinguishing the fire, which prompted the crew to activate the total flooding system. The flooding system, however, malfunctioned.  As time passed, the fire grew stronger and the risk of a nuclear meltdown intensified. Working with extreme urgency, the emergency responders next attempted to control the fire using the Carbon Dioxide system; this tactic proved successful. The CO2 system controlled the fire at its source and prevented a large-scale disaster from occurring.

Even though the fire was controlled at its source, it continued to pose a threat. Before the CO2 extinguished the fire in the Cable Spreading Room, the fire spread to the Reactor Building, which presented more problems for firefighters and plant operators. At 2 P.M. fire fighters abandoned the efforts to extinguish the fire in the control room, and plant operators decided to shut down units one and two. However, when the plant operators tried to shut down the unit two reactor, they found the emergency cooling system didn’t work, yet another setback. Eventually the plant operators shut down both reactors and looked for another method to put out the fire in the Reactor Buildings and control room.

Throughout the day the Athens Fire Chief informed the Plant Superintendent that the fire was an electrical fire not a chemical fire17. The Fire Chief recommended the use of water to extinguish the fire, but the Plant Superintendent and his superiors initially were not receptive to the idea17. According to TVA procedures, water would only be used in electrical fires if all other attempts failed. It was not until 6 P.M., nearly six hours after the fire started, that the Plant Superintendent authorized fire fighters to use water on the fire in the Reactor Building. Within fifteen minutes the fire was essentially out18.

Narrative of the Disaster:

This is a fictional account of the Brown’s Ferry Fire from the perspective of a plant operator

“There’s a fire!” “Fire in the Cable Spreading Room!” their voices shouted over the phone in frightened tones. As I listened to the chaos on the other end of the phone, my heart rate spiked. Panic overtook my mind and body. As an operator of Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant, this was my worst nightmare. Images of nuclear meltdowns and atomic mushroom clouds flashed through my mind. Widespread radiation, creating desolate land, disease, and death. It would all be this plant’s fault; it would be blamed on us, on me. This couldn’t be happening. It had to be a joke. But as the workmen in the Cable Spreading Room continued to yell on the other end of the line, I knew it was real. It took all the strength I had to regain my composure. I steadied my voice and attempted to respond as calmly as I could, “Emergency services have been dispatched; we’ll have the situation handled shortly”. I stayed on the phone to receive updates from the workmen; my hands continued to shake. Another voice spoke into the phone, this time an emergency service workmen; “Sir, we are having some difficulty over here. Do we have permission to activate the total flooding system?”. I gave my approval and waited. I was quickly informed that the total flooding system had malfunctioned. “Oh no, this could be really bad,” I thought to myself. The horrific images of a nuclear meltdown continued to race through my mind. My fear escalated with each passing second.

After the flooding system failed,  I gave the emergency service workers permission to activate the Carbon Dioxide System. The CO2  system successfully controlled the fire at its source in the Cable Spreading Room. Finally some good news! I felt a mild sense of relief, but I knew we were still not out of the woods. The fire was still raging in the Reactor Buildings, and when we attempted to shut down the unit two reactor, the emergency cooling system didn’t work. TVA protocol stated that in the case of an electrical fire, water was only to be used as a last resort, but at this point we were out of options. If I didn’t act now, something very bad could happen very soon.  I authorized the use of water, and within 15 minutes the fire was extinguished. The most stressful, most frantic, and scariest six hours of my life were over. The plant and I had survived. Thankfully, a nuclear meltdown did not occur at Brown’s Ferry that day, but it could have. Thank God for luck. 

Causes:

The primary causes of March 22nd fire at Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Power Plant were the use of polyurethane to seal the holes in the wall between the Cable Spreading Room and the Control Room and Reactor Building and the use of a candle to check the resealed portions of the wall. After several tests were conducted as part of the Congressional Hearing on the Brown’s Ferry Fire, it was determined that polyurethane is an extremely flammable material19. This discovery prompted the NRC to issue new regulations that removed all polyurethane in use at nuclear plants at the time and forbade the future use of the material in nuclear plants. Using a candle to check for air leaks was another practice common in nuclear power plants in the 1970s. However, this technique was extremely risky, and as evident in the Brown’s Ferry accident could easily ignite a fire. The use of combustible nonmetallic cables and poorly designed safety features, including the total flooding system and emergency cooling system, also enabled the fire to spread20.

Public Response to Brown’s Ferry Fire:

413px-All-Atomic Comics (1st edition front cover)

Although the fire at Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant resulted in little damage, the public reaction to the accident was dramatic. Numerous publications, comments, and editorial cartoons mentioned various potential dangers associated with nuclear power. In a Wall Street Journal article published on July 9, 1975, David Brand explained the nature of these criticisms by writing, “The debate over nuclear power’s safety has been fiery, often emotional, and if nothing else confusing”21. Anti-nuclear media sources attempted to clear the confusion of the nuclear debate by illustrating the potential catastrophic effects of a nuclear meltdown. Fear was their greatest instrument of persuasion.

All-Atomic Comics, designed by Leonard Rifas and published by Educomics in January of 1976, a year after the fire at Brown’s Ferry, villainizes the nuclear power industry and tries to convince the average American of the dangers of nuclear power plants. When the comic was first published in 1976, only 10,000 copies were printed1. Comic stores sold some of these copies on the same shelves as comics sold for entertainment while anti-nuclear organizations sold the rest as educational material. The availability of All-Atomic Comics in regular comic stores helped the comic reach ordinary consumers. As the anti-nuclear power movement picked up steam in the late 1970s, revised editions of the same All-Atomic Comics were printed in 1977, 1978, 1979, and 1980 with the total amount of comics printed totaling 47,500 copies22.

Although the comic delivers it’s warning in a light way, Rifas’ comic emphasizes that nuclear power could potentially have apocalyptic consequences. The cartoon illustrates a boy, who appears to be a teenager, talking to a sinister looking anthropomorphized light bulb with pointy teeth and a menacing expression. By giving the light bulb human characteristics, Rifas makes the light bulb, and the nuclear power industry, the villain.

In the cartoon, the light bulb holds a model of a nuclear power plant in its hand and stands on a book titled “Bigger is Better”26.  The title of the book in this cartoon criticizes the tendency of construction companies to value size over quality when building nuclear plants.  This criticism was especially relevant after the fire at Browns Ferry since several of the plant’s safety features malfunctioned when emergency services tried to employ them in response to the fire. The two mushrooms in the cartoon, an allusion to two atomic mushroom clouds, illustrate another flaw of nuclear plants: the unpredictability of them. One of the mushrooms stands straight while the other is cut in half with the top portion lying on the ground. The dead mushroom represents the high probability of accidents in nuclear plants.

In the cartoon, the boy asks the light bulb, “Is Nuclear Power the answer?” meaning is nuclear power the future of domestic energy, to which the light bulb responds, “Kid, I’d bet your life on it!”27.  The light bulb’s ironic response highlights the extreme risks that come along with nuclear power. The light bulb also points straight at the boy, which emphasizes that the dangers of nuclear plants could directly affect the boy. By having the light bulb point at the boy, Rifas stresses that nuclear meltdowns have the potential to affect everyone and that people should consider nuclear power a personal issue.

Most Americans at the time could identify with the teenage boy in the cartoon. The boy is wearing jeans and a plain white t-shirt and slouches in an unconfident stance. Like the boy in the comic, people questioned whether nuclear energy was worth the risk. Comics, like All-Atomic Comics, and other forms of media tried to bring the potential hazards of nuclear power plants to light. Although most people did not understand the complexities of nuclear power, they were able to recognize the danger of atomic energy through the mention of death in Rifas’ comic. The fear created by the fire at Brown’s Ferry and emphasized by comics like Rifas’ turned the majority of the American public against the commercial use of nuclear power in the late 1970s.

Cartoon3

This comic was illustrated by Ron Cobb and published in 1976 in Los Angeles Free Press,  a publication for which Cobb created a weekly single paneled comic. Cobb’s cartoon illustrates the unpredictability of nuclear power plants and portrays the inevitable risks that come with advanced technology. Like Rifas’ cartoon, Cobb’s comic depicts the deadly consequences that could potentially result from commercial nuclear power plants.

The comic depicts two men wearing hazmat suits, protective whole-body garments worn to protect against hazardous substances including radioactive material. The letters “NRC” printed on the suit of the man to the left stands for Nuclear Regulatory Commission, indicating that the men work for the agency. The stance and facial expression of the man on the left show that he is not bothered by the horrifying scene around him. The man on the right, however, looks defeated; his slumped stance and his eyes fixed on the ground show that he is upset.

Behind the men are a nuclear power plant and several homes. The physical structure of the nuclear plant is severely damaged. Smoke rises from the plant indicating a fire. Cars are parked in front of the homes and bodies are strewn across the lawns. The dead bodies in the front yards represent the average people who could lose their lives as a result of nuclear meltdown. Cobb included the dead bodies to create pathos and to stir up an emotional response in his audience. The dead bird in front of the two standing men and the legs of a presumably dead men on the top of the hill are more signs of the widespread death that would result from a nuclear disasters.

The location of the two men in hazmat suits on a hill far from the plant represents the removed nature of the NRC. In the case of a nuclear meltdown, the majority of the people who would be negatively affected would be American citizens’ living in close proximity to the nuclear plant, not Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials. In response to the destruction surrounding them, the man on the left states, “Well win a few, lose a few…” This response suggests that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission does not care about the safety of nuclear plants and the innocent people who live near them. The response also supports Charles Perrow’s definition of a normal accident. In Perrow’s book Normal Accidents: Living with High Risk Technologies, he writes, “As our technology expands, as our wars multiply, and as we invade more and more of nature, we create systems—organizations, and the organization of organizations—that increase the risks for the operators, passengers, innocent by-standers, and for future generations”. In his cartoon, Cobb proves that the NRC sees nuclear disasters as normal accidents. From the NRC’s perspective in this comic, the advancement of technology outweighs the amplified risks that accompany it. However, from Cobb’s perspective, the definite safety of people is far more important than improved technology.

Images

Government Reaction:

The groundswell of public criticism of the nuclear power industry  in the wake of the Brown’s Ferry fire quickly lead to government action. On September 16, 1975 a hearing before the Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy investigating the Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant Fire commenced. The Congressional Committee on Atomic Energy was composed of eight members of the House and eight members of the Senate. Senator John O. Pastore of Rhode Island served as the committee’s chairman, and Congressman Melvin Price of Illinois served as the vice chairman. Chairman William Anders and his staff of the NRC, TVA Chairman Wagner and his associates, and Aubrey V. Godwin, Director of the Division of Radiological Health in the Alabama Department of Public Health, were all interviewed in the investigation28.

Senator Montoya of New Mexico outlined the goals of the hearing in the opening remarks, explaining, “The committee meets this morning to receive testimony on the circumstances surrounding the fire which occurred on March 22, 1975 at the TVA’s Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant, located near Athens, Alabama.” He went on to state, “In the development of our Nation’s civilian nuclear power program, the paramount consideration should and must be nuclear safety. I believe that we have had an excellent safety record, as witnessed by the fact that no one has been killed or injured in a nuclear accident at a commercial power plant. However, the fire at Brown’s Ferry is a striking example of how things can and do go wrong.”29 The Congressional hearing included an investigation report with specific fire protection recommendations by the Nuclear Energy Property Insurance Agency. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) published NUREG-0050, “Recommendations Related to Browns Ferry Fire,” in February 1976. The fire regulations that were recommended in the Congressional hearing and later put into effect by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission are still used to regulate the safety features of nuclear power plants today.

Legacy of Brown’s Ferry Fire:

Today, the Brown’s Ferry Fire is not remembered for what happened, but what could of happened. Although no radioactive material escaped from the plant in the fire,  the 1975 incident at Brown’s Ferry was the first major scare the Nuclear Regulatory faced. The widespread fear of nuclear power plants following the Brown’s Ferry fire marked a shift in public opinion regarding the commercial use of nuclear power. Over several decades MIT has monitored trends in public opinion related to the civilian use of nuclear power. Over that period,  MIT researchers asked a random sample of American citizens the question, “Do you support or oppose building new nuclear power plants?”. The results of this survey show a steep drop in support for nuclear power beginning in 197530.  Those attitudes became more firmly entrenched in the wake of the Three Mile Island Accident in 1979. As a result of this shift in opinion, there have been no new nuclear plants constructed since 1974; the only recent approvals from the NRC have been given to fix reactors in existing power plants.

See Also:

Three Mile Island

Tennessee Valley Authority

Nuclear Regulatory Commission

1973 Oil Crisis

Nuclear Power Plants

Works Cited:

1 Brown’s Ferry Nuclear Plant Fire, Part 1: hearing before the Committee on Atomic Energy, United States Senate, Ninety-Fourth Congress, first session, September 16, 1975 (“1975 Congressional Hearing”) pg. 1

2 1975 Congressional Hearing pg. 5

Roney, J. Matthew. "U.S. Nuclear Power in Decline." Earth Policy Institute. Earth Policy Institute, 10 Sept. 2013. Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

4 Kitchens, Carl. "The Role of Publicly Provided Electricity in Economic Development: The Experience of the Tennessee Valley Authority, 1929-1955." The Journal of Economic History 74.2 (2014) (The Journal of Economic History) 389. Web.

5 The Journal of Economic History pg. 389

6 The Journal of Economic History pg. 395

7 The Journal of Economic History pg. 395

8 The Journal of Economic History pg. 395

"TVA: Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant." Tennessee Valley Authority. Tennessee Valley Authority, Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

10  "TVA: Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant." Tennessee Valley Authority. Tennessee Valley Authority, Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

11 "TVA: Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant." Tennessee Valley Authority. Tennessee Valley Authority, Web. 5 Dec. 2014.

12 Rosa, Eugene A., and Riley E. Dunlap. "Poll Trends: Nuclear Power: Three Decades of Public Opinion." Public Opinion Quarterly 58.2 (1994): 295. Web.

13  Energy Trends Since the First Major U.S. Energy Crisis: 25th Anniversary of the 1973 Oil Embargo. Washington, D.C. (EI-30, Forrestal Building, Washington 20585): Administration, 1998. Print.

14 Halabi, Yakub. US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: From Crises to Change. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009. Print.

15  Halabi, Yakub. US Foreign Policy in the Middle East: From Crises to Change. Farnham, Surrey, England: Ashgate, 2009. Print.

16 "Polyurethane Applications." Polyurethanes. American Chemistry Council, Web. 11 Oct. 2014.

17 Comey, David Dinsmore. "The Fire at the Brown's Ferry Nuclear Power Station." CCNR. Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, 27 Mar. 1996. Web. 12 Oct. 2014.

18 1975 Congressional Hearing

19 1975 Congressional Hearing

20 1975 Congressional Hearing

21 Brand, David. "Atomic Anxiety: Nuclear-Safety Debate Rages Over Reliability Of Emergency System A Power-Plant Experiment Will Test Cooling Device, May Bring Issue to Head Incident at Brown's Ferry Atomic Anxiety: Cooling System Is Issue in Nuclear-Safety Debate." Wall Street Journal, July 9, 1975. Accessed September 13, 2014.

25 Rifas, Leonard. "Cartooning and Nuclear Power: From Industry Advertising to Activist Uprising and Beyond." PS: Political Science & Politics 40.02 (2007): 255. Web.

26 Rifas, Leonard. "All-Atomic Comics." 1st ed. San Francisco: Educomics, 1976. Print.

27Rifas, Leonard. "All-Atomic Comics." 1st ed. San Francisco: Educomics, 1976. Print

28 1975 Congressional Hearing

29 1975 Congressional Hearing

30 The Future of Nuclear Power: An MIT Interdisciplinary Study. Boston: Massachusetts Institue of Technology, 2003. Print.

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