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Panel shares TMI lessons

On the 25th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, government officials gathered to share the lessons learned.


"Credibility can be an extremely fragile commodity in these situations."

—Gov. Richard Thornburgh

On the 25th anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident, several key government officials in that disaster gathered at the Smithsonian National Museum of American

History to share the lessons learned.

The panel discussion, entitled “Three Mile Island: A Look Back After 25 Years,” offered the officials a chance to tell of their experiences during the most serious accident ever at a commercial nuclear power plant in the United States.

J. Samuel Walker, historian for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), started by giving a historical overview of the event. There are two nuclear plants on Three Mile Island and the newest one was the site of the accident, he said.

“A core meltdown is the worst kind of nuclear accident,” said

Walker. “And we didn’t know until 1985 that one-half of the core had melted. We were fortunate that the accident didn’t result in large amounts of volatile radiation being released.”

Three Mile Island sits only ten miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and 100 miles from Washington, D.C. Some 38,000 people lived within five miles of the plant. Despite the knowledge that the plant didn’t release large amounts of radiation, evacuation of nearby residents was still on officials’ minds.

“The fundamental decision facing the response team was if an evacuation of the surrounding areas was necessary,˜ said Walker. “This decision was complicated by the lack of information.”

Part of the reason that officials didn’t know the severity of the accident was due to a combination of human error and a lack of safety and monitoring controls inside the reactor’s control room.

Walker said the decision to evacuate all children and pregnant women in the area came on March 30. That total of people was around 3,500, yet at the same time, another 70,000 people in the area left on their own.

Overall, the evacuation decision was up to then Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh, who spoke at Sunday’s panel. He said the entire situation was very new to him, as a brand-new governor who was only 10 weeks into his office.

“The day began as a normal day for a new governor,˜ said Thornburgh, who served as Pennsylvania’s governor from 1979-1987. “But then once I was notified shortly after 7 a.m. about the accident, the next five days were a very trying and difficult time for all of us who were involved.”

Thornburgh listed ten lessons he learned from the accident, which included "expect the unexpected, don’t try to manage an emergency away from the site, beware of the impulse of those involved to ‘just do something,’ forget partisanship, and it ain’t over ‘til it’s over.˜

He also said that keeping people informed is a key to handling a disaster well. “Another lesson learned was to search for and evaluate the facts and their sources often – and then pass them on to the people,˜ Thornburgh said.

“Credibility can be an extremely fragile commodity in these situations.”

Working with the media is another challenging aspect of disaster response, said Thornburgh. “Respect the media, but don’t rely on them in an emergency,˜ he said. “Some of the reporting on this accident was good, and then some was outrageous.”

Jessica Tuchman Mathews, Director of the Office of Global Issues in the National Security Council from 1977-1979, spoke next and said her list of lessons learned “has an eerie overlap with Thornburgh.”

All of the speakers agreed when Mathews said this accident taught her how well the government can work. “For this accident we went from having nothing planned in preparation, to having dozens of agencies helping in their own way,” she said. “The crisis called up the best in everybody. Everyone performed at their absolute best.”

Like Thornburgh, Mathews shared her amazement at how partisanship did not get in the way of the relief effort. “No one thought of the political ramifications of evacuations, and that was great,˜ she said. “The state and federal government worked very well together.”

She gave an example of how they avoided conflicting news releases. “We decided early on to have only President Carter’s press secretary give briefings on what the federal government was doing, only Gov. Thornburgh’s press secretary give briefings on state response, and only the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s press secretary five briefings on what the NRC was doing,˜ she said. “This really helped control a rising sense of fear and panic.”

Thornburgh agreed with Mathews when she said she doesn’t think that her points about non-partisanship and media control could happen today.

“While the improved communication we have today – like cell phones and email – could’ve helped us more then,˜ said Thornburgh, “the 24-hour cable news networks and non-stop media pressure of today could’ve had a harmful effect then.˜

Yet with Mathews’ list of successes during the relief effort, came an example of a mistake. “What didn’t work well was the scientific community – they made some serious mistakes under the stress of the moment,˜ she said.

And despite that, she added that what struck her was how well the people of central Pennsylvania responded. “They were receiving so much conflicting information,˜ she said. “I think history finds the right people to handle these events.˜

Harold Denton, director of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation for the NRC from 1978-1988, spoke after Mathews. He pointed out how unprepared the NRC was at that time for an event like Three Mile Island.

“I thought we had constructed an iron-clad set of regulations, but one factor we hadn’t thought of was human performance,˜ he said. “That was the number-one lesson for me: Don’t be complacent and think that anything is impossible.”

Denton said another sign of the NRC's non-preparation was how it communicated with nuclear power plants in the US. “The NRC was an administrative agency then, we had no special way of communicating with affected plants,˜ he said.

“Communication was a challenge the entire time.˜

In the early stages of the meltdown, Denton said the NRC received notice that radiation was leaking from the core. Yet later, he said his and Thornburgh’s team of experts determined that the meltdown was fully contained.

President Jimmy Carter also played an active role in the response, agreed the panelists. “He told me three things,˜ said Denton. “First was that all resources of the federal government were available to Pennsylvania; second was to always tell the truth; and the third was to keep him informed at all times.”

The panelists all said Carter’s trip to Three Mile Island just days after the accident helped boost both the public’s and the government’s confidence in the response effort.

Good containment of the radiation in this accident was another key to the general success of the response, said Denton. His agency made efforts to test the surrounding areas for radiation often.

He added that the University of Pittsburgh teams are still testing people who lived near Three Mile Island, and they’ve never found any signs of radiation exposure.

Dr. Nils Diaz, current chairman of the NRC, said the lessons learned from Three Mile Island have been put forth into the current NRC regulations.

“We established both internal and external command centers for U.S. power plants,˜ he said. “We also keep significant amounts of the thyroid radiation blocking drug Potassium Iodide on hand for any state that needs access to it.˜

The NRC of today is very different than it was in 1979, said Diaz.

Thornburgh added that the 25-year-old accident was something that will stay with him for the rest of his life. “It was quite a chilling event,˜ he said. “I know many of us who lived through it would choose to never do it again – and my hope is that we won’t."

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