Three Mile Island's shadow: after 25 years, few reforms

The Argument

In the aftermath, sound, harsh judgments were made -- and have had little if any impact.


March 28, 2004|By Susan Q. Stranahan | Susan Q. Stranahan,Special to the Sun

Twenty-five years ago this morning, operators in the control room at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant south of Harrisburg realized they were in the midst of a crisis, the magnitude of which no one knew or understood.

As system after system inside the giant Unit 2 reactor on the Susquehanna River mysteriously malfunctioned, the experts sank into total befuddlement.

For a nation whose sense of security has been shattered by the cataclysmic events of September 11, 2001, those frightening days in late March 1979 may now seem dim and inconsequential. But before 9 / 11, the accident at TMI and the panic it created among tens of thousands of people were unprecedented. Their lives may have been in jeopardy, yet the people and institutions they trusted to protect them had no answers. America, it seemed, had made a pact with the devil, and the devil was nuclear energy.

Two and a half decades later, we remain wedded to an energy source whose ultimate emergency response is this: mass evacuation.

Much has changed since a simple sequence of equipment failures led to a core meltdown and serious talk about a huge release of radiation across central Pennsylvania. The nuclear industry and its regulators are quick to tell us that things have dramatically improved, and that reactors are safe and those who own and operate them sobered by the TMI experience.

But for all such assurances, there are ample signs that many of the same problems and attitudes that spawned the TMI accident remain deeply embedded in today's nuclear culture, both within the utility industry and among those who regulate it. This comes at a time when America's reactors are nearing the end of their engineered life spans, when competitive energy markets have caused reactor-owning utilities to drastically cut spending, when terrorist attacks are not just a hypothetical possibility, and when the prevailing attitude in Washington is decidedly hands-off on tough regulatory enforcement.

It's worth reviewing the events of that fateful week 25 years ago, and measuring just where we stand today.

To mark the anniversary of the accident, two new books have been published. Three Mile Island, A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, by J. Samuel Walker (University of California Press, 315 pages, $24.95), details the meltdown and its aftermath. Walker is the historian of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission and, as such, had access to current and former NRC staff members, government documents and technical records.

The second book is TMI 25 Years Later, by Bonnie Anne Osif, Anthony J. Baratta and Thomas W. Conkling (Penn-sylvania State University Press, 160 pages, $24.95). The authors maintain a Web site of documents pertaining to TMI's cleanup, for which Penn State's libraries are the host. The modest book offers a primer on nuclear power, the accident and its aftermath, and provides useful photographs, an appendix and chronology.

Walker devotes considerable space to the history of nuclear power development in this country, the debate it engendered, and the schizophrenic mandates of early regulators -- to promote the atom and ensure its safe use.

It is when he moves to the early moments of Wednesday morning, March 28, that the story takes on a life of its own. Three hours into the accident, as control room operators were struggling to make sense of what was happening inside the reactor, radiation was discovered leaking into an adjacent building. A state environmental official, on the phone with the control room at the time, remembers thinking: "This is the biggie." Yet, hours later, TMI's owners were assuring the public the problem was minor and that the plant would be out of service for "about a week."

At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, confusion also reigned. Even as evidence mounted that the situation was dire, and talk grew about the need for evacuating a huge population, one staunchly pro-industry NRC commissioner objected to a press release that used the word "accident."

Walker finely portrays the heroes of TMI, especially the NRC's unflappable Harold Denton, dispatched to the scene as the "personal representative" of an angry and frustrated President Jimmy Carter. Denton, a slow-speaking North Carolinian who had participated in one press conference in his entire life before heading to Pennsylvania, walked into the eye of a storm, where more than 400 reporters from around the globe were waiting to scream questions at him at raucous news briefings.

The author also details the dilemma faced by Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, the other hero of the story. Thornburgh, confronted with a totally inept federal bureaucracy and a utility that could not be counted on to tell the truth, was forced to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life: whether to order a mass evacuation. (Ultimately, 144,000 people fled.)

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