Thursday, February 02, 2006

Three Mile Island - I Was There

"The minute I heard that there had been an accident at a nuclear facility, I knew we were in another dimension." PA Governor Richard Thornburgh, 1979

"To change how we power our homes and offices, we will invest more in zero-emission coal-fired plants, revolutionary solar and wind technologies and clean, safe nucular [sic]energy." President George W. Bush, SOTU 2006

No matter how badly Dubya mispronounces it, the debate on nuclear energy is heating up again. Some experts say it's our safest energy resource. Others claim it's a road to Armageddon.

Where does the truth lie? I don't know, but I can personally report on the worst nuclear accident in US history -- Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, PA. I was on the team coordinating public information during and after the events at TMI.

The TMI accident started when a valve opened unnoticed, allowing coolant water to escape from the plant’s new Unit 2 reactor. A series of technical and human failures followed, and temperatures inside the unit rose to more than 5,000 degrees, causing the fueling core to begin melting.

A nuclear meltdown results when the reactor core burns through its containment building, releasing radioactive material into the air and soil, potentially contaminating the environment for miles around, and possibly for centuries to come.

That horrendous catastrophe was averted at Three Mile Island. But it could have happened. Mass chaos would have followed. But it didn't. Because local, state and national officials worked together pretty damn well to prevent it. And because President Carter felt his hands-on leadership was essential. As in fact it was.

PA Governor Dick Thornburgh had been in office barely two months and knew nothing about nuclear power. Jimmy Carter was a nuclear engineer. Yes, some time was wasted on miscommunication and politics, but not much and not for long.

Because President Carter stepped up and stepped in. Would George W. Bush personally come to the rescue in a similar situation? The name Katrina should give you a clue. For the Bush Bunch, it's all about politics.

The scope of the potential catastrophe at TMI made partisan political maneuvers pale by comparison. And because the danger was so enormous, so was the public's fear. It too had to be contained.

The TMI information team was formed on Day 1--March 28, 1979--at the Philadelphia ad agency representing the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Centralized communication was essential. Inside the technical community and in the public domain. Damage control was imperative at all levels.

We worked virtually 24/7 for over a week, the first day in Philly, the rest at ground zero near Harrisburg. We crammed our heads with data on nuclear reactors. Subsisted on coffee and stale donuts. Made morbid jokes to stem the fear. And tried feverishly to come up with a plan to stop the rumors and allay the public's terror.

My role was unique. I had worked for the previous governor of PA and for the Carter-Mondale election campaign. I knew the players and the play-books on both teams. I also knew the local pols and the populace. And I knew, as we all did, that critical mass was escalating on all fronts.

First we had to gather accurate information. Nearly impossible in the beginning, because miscues, overreactions, misinformation and utter confusion ruled the day. Nobody knew the full story. Experts disagreed on the causes and extent of the danger. And everybody was actively engaged in CYA.

Information from Three Mile Island, its owner Metropolitan Edison Company, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was incomplete, contradictory and confusing. And rumors reported in the media were skyrocketing out of control.

We helped craft Governor Thornburgh's first public address. He spoke briefly and succinctly.

"Good afternoon, I'd like to address my initial remarks to the people of central Pennsylvania. I believe, at this point, that there is no cause for alarm, nor any reason to disrupt your daily routine, nor any reason to feel that public health has been affected by the events on Three Mile Island. This applies to pregnant women, this applies to small children and this applies to our food supplies. I realize that you are being subjected to a conflicting array of information from a wide variety of sources. So am I. I spent virtually the entire last 36 hours trying to separate fact from fiction about this situation. I feel that we have succeeded on the more important questions."
But the worst was yet to come.

Word got out that scientists believed a hydrogen bubble had formed above the reactor core and could lead to a meltdown. Governor Thornburgh was forced to order a partial evacuation of the area around the plant. In less than a day, over 100 thousand people scrambled to leave central PA.

As it turned out, the risk of an explosion and meltdown was far overstated. But it sparked the cooperative effort which brought President Carter and Governor Thornburgh to the reactor site together.

Our team worked to organize that visit. Which helped calm the fears of those in the immediate area and around the country.

Just so you know, when Carter and Thornburgh--and the rest of us--went inside the damaged reactor, the bubble theory was still a viable threat. The sensation of being so close to radioactive contamination--and possibly worse--was otherworldly.

In retrospect, I don't know how we did it. I can't claim courage. Or stupidity. Just necessity.

But even after the evacuation advisory was lifted and the crisis declared over, area residents were still shell shocked. Suspicious. Uncertain of continuing danger. We wracked our brains. How to convince people the region was safe?

I had an idea. After clearance by the NRC and the scientific community, we asked Met Ed to rent a double wide house trailer. The TMI plant manager, his wife and four kids moved in. What's the big deal? The trailer was set up on site at Three Mile Island. Right next to the reactor.

A little outrageous, but it worked. People returned to their homes. And the massive cleanup began.

Would I make that suggestion now with George W. Bush and his lame FEMA sycophants in charge? Not on your life.

Do I support a renewed push for nuclear energy? Under the current administration, no way. But someday, very soon, it could be the only way. I pray that by then someone with brains, integrity and true courage is at the helm.

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Blogger phthaloblu said...

I lived in PA when this happened. Not in the 10 mile radius. I was a senior in high school in Altoona at the time. But, we watched the news report and talked about it in school. Later, I actually moved to the York area and lived there for over 20 years. My friends in college told me stories of how they would broadcast the size of the bubble and how some parents came and took them out of school and left town and at least one friend's parents left town without her. I am not a huge fan of Jimmy Carter, but I do believe that without his knowledge and levelheadedness in the face of impending disaster, TMI would have been a lot worse. I have read books to educate myself and I am not a fan of nuclear energy. The biggest obstacle is what to do with the waste? We can't litter space with it as we have littered the earth with our garbage. I think they need to put more funding into fusion and solar. Thanks for a great post from a I was there perspective. Without all those key players pulling together and working together to alleviate the danger, things may not have turned out as they did. I shudder to think about how bad it could have been. As it was, my bf and I had evacuation plans just in case something happened again. I was still living there on 9/11 and believe me my first thought was of TMI and I resisted the urge to grab my kids and high tail it for the hills. It is very easy to get caught up in hysteria, but I think the public needs to educate themselves about energy instead of relying on politicians with an agenda. The internet is a great resource for information, but I think the overwhelming amount of it deters most people.

9:22 AM  

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