Revisiting Three Mile Island, a catastrophe averted by luck

On Books

March 28, 2004|By Michael Pakenham

Twenty-five years minus 14 days ago, an editorial that I wrote in The Philadelphia Inquirer concluded that though "the core is said to be cooling and the most genetically vulnerable of Pennsylvanians are allowed back in the immediate area, the crisis of Three Mile Island has not ended. It has just begun. Even minimal concern for humanity cries out for responsible, exhaustive examination of the circumstances and implications of the accident."

Today is precisely 25 years since the TMI nuclear power generating Unit 2 -- 55 miles north of Baltimore -- began to destroy itself. The ensuing events constituted the most serious nuclear incident in U.S. history -- and except for the 1986 catastrophe at Chernobyl, the most dangerous in all history. On this page, Susan Q. Stranahan, a keen scholar of TMI for those 25 years, provides splendid perspective.

In substantial contrast to her conclusions, the majority of voices in the nuclear power industry and in the government agencies that regulate and oversee it today speak with confidence that subsequent investigations, and safeguards that have resulted, have been both exhaustive and effective.

Their smug self-satisfaction is identical to that of their predecessors a quarter century ago.

The TMI "accident" was the first time in the known history of commercial nuclear power production that radiation had escaped into the atmosphere. That was in the first day. The early events were immediately compounded by a dauntless combination of incompetence, indifference, dishonesty and confusion. For days, few people inside or out -- perhaps none -- knew the actual gravity and consequence of the problem in full perspective. On April 27, "cold shutdown" of the reactor was achieved. Essentially what made that possible was the spontaneous absorption of a massive hydrogen "bubble" in the cooling water. The chilling truth was that disaster had been averted not by man or machine, but by blessed good luck.

For much of that first week, I and thousands of others were engaged by the crisis virtually without sleep. Reflecting on those days recaptures the high drama of the experience.

And so, I have visited the two new books that Stranahan cites, and reread the main coverage that won The Inquirer a Pulitzer Prize, as well as much of the coverage published by The Sun --which I had not seen at the time, and which I was delighted to find to be excellent. Among all that, I reread the editorials I wrote on the subject for The Inquirer, where I was then serving as associate editor.

It is impossible to distill in less than several newspaper pages the cascade of technical failures within the reactor. Suffice here to say that -- whatever some revisionists now aver -- the most qualified and fully informed scientists at that time believed there was an acute possibility of an explosion in the reactor core, and that would have spread masses of nuclear debris dozens or hundreds of miles downwind of the plant.

What was the real human danger? Chernobyl remains the main case that offers a parallel. That plant was substantially different in design and proportions from TMI. But it is notable that when it exploded on April 26, 1986, 31 or 32 people were killed immediately. More tragically, an estimated 50 tons of radioactive dust were dispersed over 140,000 square miles of Belarus, Ukraine and Russia, and 4.9 million people were exposed to radiation. Because of Soviet secrecy and the confusion of post-Soviet times, there are no reliable figures of the number of people who died as a result of that disaster, but estimates range from the low thousands to the tens of thousands.

On Friday, March 30, 1979 the third day at TMI, 75,000 of the 975,000 Pennsylvanians in the immediately threatened four-county area voluntarily fled -- a figure that ultimately rose to 144,000. On Saturday afternoon, Joseph M. Hendrie, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, publicly advised the evacuation of people living within 20 miles downwind of the plant. Gov. Richard Thornburgh resisted, fearing uncontrollable panic among the public.

In 1979, I wrote 14 editorials on the events and failures at TMI, nine of them between the first, on March 30, and April 15. Reading through them, I rediscovered some details that time had faded:

* A 1975 study by a team of eminent scientists commissioned by the NRC had concluded that an explosion "accident" in a reactor the size of TMI would likely kill 3,300 people, inflict 45,000 with fatal cancer and infect another 45,000 with nonfatal diseases.

* In October 1979, the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island assessed the cost of the TMI event, with much then left to be done, at between $1 billion and $2 billion.

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