Remembering Three Mile Island

On March 28, 1979, I started a new job as a reporter for The Energy Daily, coming from covering energy and environmental issues for one of Congressional Quarterly’s publications. It was an auspicious day, as I couldn’t appreciate at the time.

During that day, I looked at wire service accounts (there wasn’t an Internet, and the wires—paper output clickety-clacking out of remote printers—were all we had) and read about a problem with a nuclear reactor near Harrisburg, Pa. That night, at a dinner party, a friend asked me about what was going on in Pennsylvania. I basically brushed it off, saying it looked to me like a minor event, but that time would provide more meaning.

Not a minor event, as it turned out. It was a small, but unanticipated and persistent loss of-coolant accident (LOCA) at Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2. The event would occupy much of my time for months and years to come. The loss of coolant befuddled the operators, who could not find the stuck-open valve that was responsible for the uncontrolled heating of the reactor core. TMI would turn the nuclear power industry on its sometimes too-thick head, as reactor operators, utility engineers, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulators could not suss out what was happening to the reactor core as it lost coolant, heated up, and melted fuel. I’ve been covering TMI, one way or another, ever since.

Truth Was the First Casualty

As the event unfolded, it revealed the dirty management secret of nuclear power in those days. The people who ran the business were blinded by nuclear mythology and unable to either recognize the truth about the event at Harrisburg or acknowledge its significance. This sort of accident couldn’t be happening; therefore, it wasn’t. All of the industry’s accident planning was geared to large LOCAs. TMI was not something they had contemplated.

Setting aside the convenient lying by General Public Utilities (GPU) executives—and the Metropolitan Edison subsidiary officials who actually ran the reactor—look at the broader nuclear industry’s dancing and shadow-boxing with the media about the extent of the damage to the plant. At first, they said it was a minor incident. No harm, no foul.

Then, as the regulators began to dig into the event, and it persisted, it was a major accident, but there was no fuel damage, and the reactor would be back in service soon. Ho-hum.

Oops! There was fuel damage (not melting), but that could be managed. Never mind.

But it turned out there was fuel melting. Then it turned out that 90% of the nuclear fuel had been damaged or melted. This was unprecedented—the most catastrophic light water reactor accident in history. It was impossible for the nuclear industry to extract its radioactive feet from its mouth.

To this day, the industry, and the general media, which has no understanding of these issues, calls the TMI catastrophic accident a “partial meltdown.” It was, in fact, a core meltdown of major proportions that completely destroyed the reactor and turned the $1.4 billion plant into radioactive rubble. Let’s call it what it was: a reactor meltdown.

Fortunately, the safety systems prevented the meltdown from breaching the containment. The accident could have been far worse. There was no “China syndrome” of molten core melting through the bottom of reactor vessel and into the ground. There was no containment breach. But the accident was plenty bad.

Industry in Denial

Then there was the reaction of the nuclear power industry, which can only be characterized as deep denial. The Washington nuclear lobby, after the magnitude of the accident started to become clear, claimed that it was a validation of the industry’s safety standards. No one was harmed by the accident, so it proved that the regulatory system worked, said the nukes, to guffaws among reporters who covered the industry.

No one was harmed? How about the shareholders and creditors of the utility, who saw their assets turned to radioactive junk? Nobody got seriously irradiated (despite bogus claims of local anti-nuclear activists), but plenty of folks who owned GPU stock and bonds saw their net worth go up in nuclear flames, at least temporarily.

I suggested at the time that if the industry was so pleased with the demonstration that the regulatory safety system worked at TMI, it should volunteer a couple of other plants to recreate the accident and solidify the demonstration. No takers.

Nuclear Industry Burns Out

The contraction of U.S. nuclear power began in the mid-1970s—about the time I went to work as a part-time editor at the newly created Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which was carved out of the old Atomic Energy Commission. By 1975, growth in the industry, in terms of applications to build new plants, had dried up and plants with construction licenses were being cancelled all over the nation. The stagnation of the nuclear industry was not driven by the TMI accident, although that event didn’t help.

The problem was a U.S. economy that was headed into what became known as “stagflation.” Economic growth was stagnant, and prices and interest rates were rising. It was the worst of all possible worlds for capital-intensive projects such as nuclear power plants. The builders of the Seabrook plant in New Hampshire had to pay 25% interest on the final bonds to get the plant finished and in operation. Public Service of New Hampshire may have been able to get better interest rates from the Sopranos.

As stagflation worsened, nuclear plant projects tumbled to the ground like overripe fruit. Those that came to completion faced state regulators with little patience for double-digit rate increases to pay the capital costs, known as “rate shock.” The result was what the regulators called “phase in” of recovery of construction costs but what the industry understood correctly as hits to its financial bottom line. From those days forward, nobody was willing to build a new nuclear plant. So it goes.

Old Dog, New Tricks

What lessons can we learn, 30 years after TMI? I’m not sure, but I would propose some ideas. Not recommendations, just ideas. (See the accompanying commentary in this issue from crisis communications expert Peter Sandman, with excellent observations on lessons to be learned.)

  • Utility managements should dedicate themselves to the absolute truth, which means not claiming that they understand things they don’t understand, and honestly facing up to conditions that impact their businesses. As the TMI incident was developing, the folks at General Public Utilities (and subsidiary Met Ed) really didn’t know what was happening. They would have been far better off acknowledging that to the public. The NRC’s Harold Denton, who calmed the nation with his management of the mess, did just that.
  • Regulators should express public humility when faced with events they don’t understand and evidence of poor performance by the entities they regulate. Transcripts of NRC meetings during the TMI meltdown demonstrate that regulators were at a loss for explanations. That’s fine. We can have more confidence in our regulators when we understand that they are human and have little more understanding of complex situations than we do, particularly when their technical staff don’t have much of a clue about what is happening.
  • Reporters, legislators, and political policy-makers should focus more on systemic, root causes of regulatory failure and less on high-profile posturing, blame-gaming, and personal attacks. The NRC failed in its response to the TMI accident. There’s no question about that. But the failure was not because of flaws in the makeup of the commission or the character of the commissioners. All of the NRC commissioners at the time were honest, hard-working, dedicated professionals. Smart folks. Their failure was due to lack of an institutional and industry focus on transparent identification and communication of problems. The regulators were befuddled. Given the ambiguity of the empirical evidence, they were sometimes blinded by their ideological beliefs in the atom, and unable to see the scene clearly.


Enter a New Era

So how’s that for a pessimistic retrospective on the 30th anniversary of the TMI accident? Any optimism out there?

Okay, I’ll provide some. The nuclear industry has done a great job since the mid-1980s of cleaning up its act. Nuclear plants are more efficient, safer (particularly for plant workers), and more profitable. That’s good. Let’s hope it gets even better. If that’s a lesson from TMI, then it is a lesson well learned.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER.

SHARE this article