Remember the concern four years ago when news reports told all the world about an accident at a little-known nuclear site on Three Mile Island (TMI) on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania? Through a combination of mechanical failures and human errors, the TMI plant released some radioactive material in one of the most populated regions of the United States - and came within a half hour of possible meltdown. Fortunately, meltdown did not occur. But now, years later, there is still a question whether federal officials, the nuclear industry , and the American public have taken the lesson of TMI to heart.
The lesson was that federal regulatory control over the nation's aging nuclear plants had to be tightened to ensure public safety. That meant tougher standards involving personnel, management, equipment, and emergency planning. Such preoccupation with safety would not preclude legitimate cost-benefit considerations for an industry faced with massive dollar outlays. But still, public safety had to be the final determinant given all the risks involved.
Today there are many indications that the public - and indeed, government - is again becoming apathetic to the clear warnings implicit in the TMI mishap.
Admittedly, the passing of time has a way of erasing unpleasant events; that would explain why the recent three-day symposium of scientists at TMI did not attract the kind of public demonstrations seen at the previous ''anniversaries.'' Yet the controversial charges and countercharges flying back and forth between some engineers and plant officials at TMI - and the lack of clear direction by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) over the issue - suggest the need for a more vigorous initiative by the Reagan administration to assure the public that every reasonable step is being taken to maintain public safety at nuclear sites.
The current squabbles at TMI have to do with the extent and thoroughness of cleanup efforts. Four former engineers have charged that mismanagement of the cleanup effort by the primary firm handling the restoration, the Bechtel Corporation, and the various federal regulatory agencies involved, has wasted taxpayer dollars and posed new threats to public safety. And going beyond TMI itself, many nuclear experts, such as Robert Pollard, a former project manager with the NRC, argue that not only has the commission done little to ensure safety but that many of the same problems that led to TMI exist at other nuclear sites.
The American public would be ill-advised to ignore the lessons of TMI. The NRC has a responsibility to follow through on reform recommendations proposed in the various congressional and presidential panels convened after the 1979 incident. Now that many of the newer nuclear facilities on line around the US are seeking rate hikes of 20 percent or more, there is all the more reason to reassure the public that the plants are safe. There must be no compromise on the question of nuclear safety.