Harold Denton, Three Mile Island Hero, Dies at 80

Harold Denton, a career federal civil servant who helped prevent panic during the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island March 28, 1979 and days after, died February 13 at his home in Knoxville, Tenn. He was 80. The cause of death was chronic obstructive pulmonary disease coupled with complications from Alzheimer’s disease.

Denton was an obscure bureaucrat at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, head of the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, when Three Mile Island Unit 2, a quite new nuclear generating unit, suffered a small loss of coolant accident. It was deemed improbable and trivial at the time. It became the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, as neither the operators nor the regulators grasped what was happening at the time.

As the TMI economic catastrophe unfolded, Denton and the newly-created NRC watched the response of the utility, Metropolitan Edison, to the events at the plant not far from Pennsylvania’s capital in Harrisburg. The utility was dancing around the event, offering conflicting and unconvincing explanations about what had occurred, what they were doing to respond, and the severity of the accident. As it became clear later, they were uninformed, confused, and, at several points, just plain lying.

President Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer selected by the legendary nuclear pioneer Hyman Rickover to staff the nuclear Navy, decided to visit the reactor. The White House staff asked the NRC to send an expert to accompany Carter. Denton was the man of the hour.

Gov. Thornberg, left, and Harold Denton

Gov. Thornberg, left, and Harold Denton

It was a brilliant choice, as Denton was able not only to accompany Carter, but to explain to the press (I was among them), and then to the public, what was going on in plain language. Denton told the Washington Post that he found the scene at the plant in “absolute chaos,” and established direct communications between the Pennsylvania site and the NRC’s staff offices in Bethesda, Md.

After accompanying President Carter’s trip through the death throes of the reactor, Denton remained, where he conducted regular news conferences broadcast on national television, and calmed the public with his technical command and plain-spoken explanations. As his Washington Post obituary said, “He was that oft-maligned figure, a $50,000-a-year federal regulator, who managed to be the voice of competence and reason at a time of peril.”

Richard Thornburg, Pennsylvania’s Republican governor at the time of the accident and later U.S. Attorney General, said, “Harold Denton was the true hero of the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis. His easy manner, apparent candor, and ability to speak plain English as well as nuclear jargon quickly made him the world’s most believable expert on the technical situation at TMI.”

When the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl plant exploded in April of 1986, Denton again became the NRC’s chief explainer of the catastrophe, holding daily press conferences as the events unfolded. The NRC initially was unable to explain the accident, but Denton was able to defuse hysteria about it.

An interesting note of history: the Soviet Union’s chief spokesman on the nuclear explosion of the plant in Ukraine was Vitaly Churkin. As a young diplomat in the Soviet embassy in Washington, Churkin appeared at a Congressional hearing to defend his country in the aftermath of the worst nuclear catastrophe in the world to that point. It was an unprecedented act by the Soviet Union to respond to a congressional inquiry, and Churkin more than held his own during the hearing (which I covered for Energy Daily).

Churkin died of a heart attack on Feb. 20, a day before his 65th birthday and a week after Denton’s death.

Denton became a nuclear regulatory rock star after his roles in TMI and Chernobyl. But he had internal battles in the NRC, mostly with his long-time colleague and bitter rival Victor Stello. While both Denton and Stello were veterans of the Atomic Energy Commission, the predecessor to the NRC, Stello was a hard-liner on the AEC’s former mission of promoting nuclear power. Denton accepted the NRC’s role as a neutral regulator of the technology.

Stello went a political route, nominated by President George H.W. Bush in 1989 to head the DOE weapons program. He withdrew when it became clear he would not be confirmed, in part because of his long-term battles with Denton. Stello died of cancer in 1999 at age 64.

I knew Denton, both when I worked for the newly-created NRC in 1976 and when I reported for Energy Daily from 1979 to 1991. He was open, pleasant, and unpretentious. He also kept a pet Tarantula spider on his desk.