TMI and public trust

Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania is a long way from Amchitka in Alaska. But perhaps a nuclear episode on Amchitka in 1971 has something to tell 1980 about ways to meet the technological needs of cleaning up the TMI nuclear accident in the face of sharp public mistrust.

In 1971 the US government went ahead with an underground nuclear explosion test on Amchtka despite protests by American citizens, demonstrations by Canadians, and official opposition by the Canadian government. Fears of earthquake and seismic sea waves were added to concern about possible radiation leaks. To display his confidence in the safety of the explosion, the then chairman of the Atomic Energy Commission, James Schlesinger, took his wife and two daughters to the test site.

The Schlesinger gesture was seen by some as an empty grandstand play. But it did show that someone in high office recognized public concern sufficiently to see that something vivid was required of him.

No less evidence of response to citizens' doubts and fears is demanded by the situation at TMI a year after the accident. Residents of the area are confronted by reports of delay in the cleanup process, unintended escape of radioactive gases, overexposure of some workers to radiation, an increase in birth defects in Pennsylvania (though officials deny they could be due to the amount of radioactive iodine released in the accident). They are being asked to accept the deliberate venting of radioactive krypton gas in order to speed the decontamination process.

The venting is called for to forestall the krypton's leaking out anyway should containment equipment fail. One Nuclear Regulatory Commission official on the spot reportedly minimizes the leak danger, though the NRC staff favors the venting. Some opponents of the venting ask for consideration of other methods, such as liquefaction of the gases in the reactor building so that the highly radioactive krypton could be isolated. Proponents argue that the venting would be so gradual as to keep the radioactivity well within safe levels. What bothers the aroused minority of the public is uncertainty about how far they can trust an industry and government whose disclosures of information have so often been found wanting in the past. The public receives constant assurances of safety and yet sees no repeal of Price-Anderson legislation limiting the liability of the industry in case of accident and spreading the risk of the taxpayer. People looking out their windows at the TMI towers can hardly help but wonder about the effect on them of vented gases. Those living elsewhere must make an effort at empathy with them, even as Americans far from Amchitka felt empathy for Canadians worried about a nearby nuclear blast.

Despite the poor record on TMI cleanup so far, it seems reasonable that both industry and government would be doubly and triply certain not to recommend venting or anything else that would cause further hazard. Handling the aftermath is a test of the nuclear industry, even as the ability to improve prevention of accidents elsewhere is such a test.

To get on with it, all the forces involved have to win the public trust to take proper technical steps which the public may not always understand the need for. Bringing alfected citizens more fully into the decisionmaking and monitoring process is one possibility. Then there is the possibility of officials demonstrating their own confidence in safety measures by exposing themselves to the same risks they minimize for others.

One local and vocal resident wryly asked an official to bring his family and live in the resident's house. It sounds quixotic. But suppose a few official families did come and share the situation that is feared, breathe the vented gases others are asked to breathe. Suppose the President brought his family to visit local families on a venting day. It wouldn't prove anything, scientists might say, but it would show that somebody cared. And this just might help to dispel the notion that, despite all the hard work by many, nobody so far has cared enough to respond to TMI as vigorously as the episode demanded.

We want to hear, did we miss an angle we should have covered? Should we come back to this topic? Or just give us a rating for this story. We want to hear from you.