Three Mile Island: Myth and Fact

TEN years ago, the reactor at Three Mile Island had a hydrogen bubble in it. There were headlines about the reactor possibly exploding. Walter Cronkite's dramatic lead-in on the CBS evening newscast made people gasp. The governor of Pennsylvania recommended that pregnant women and small children leave the area around Middletown. Why was the latter decision so important? Because it led to the ``emergency planning'' rule that has stopped the Shoreham and Seabrook reactors, delayed the startup of other plants (adding huge costs), and made it obvious that the nuclear licensing process itself must be reformed.

The hydrogen bubble? It couldn't explode because there was no oxygen.

By daybreak on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, news of the accident was on the wires. The media descended on the area. Around the country, professors, nuclear engineers, utility executives, and antinuclear activists were interviewed.

President Carter announced that he would visit the crippled plant himself, and he designated a single spokesman, Harold Denton of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), as the only authorized source of information. Mr. Denton's calm and straightforward presentations won the confidence of the media and the local citizens. However, errors in his information set the stage for the ``evacuation'' decision.

On Friday morning, under heavy public and media pressure, the governor of Pennsylvania recommended (not ordered) a limited evacuation in case the hydrogen bubble exploded. His own technical staff had not been able to reach him in time to tell him what they and others knew.

In the accident, the hot fuel grabbed oxygen from water and hydrogen was released. Without any free oxygen left in the vessel, the hydrogen could not burn. No burning: no explosion.

But the pressure on the governor to do something was severe. Evacuating pregnant women and small children seemed to be a compromise.

The News Study Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology later analyzed the print and TV reporting of the TMI accident. They found the coverage to have been relatively calm and generally factual until noon on Friday. But once the evacuation was announced, the emphasis turned to what local people were saying, worst-case scenarios, charges of cover-up, and visions of disasters.

Commentary, much of it alarmist, took over from reporting. Unfortunately, amid the polarized atmosphere, and with only one designated spokesman at TMI, much expert knowledge never was heard. The key questions of future risks from curtailing or giving up on nuclear power were hardly raised at all.

Four weeks later, NRC officials, testifying before Congress said, ``We goofed. There was no danger of any hydrogen explosion.'' Typical newspaper coverage was a 2-inch item on page 17.

Even though state and local officials carried out their responsibilities quite effectively, the NRC felt that it would be prudent to have an emergency planning rule. The 10-mile emergency planning zone (never an ``evacuation zone'') was rather arbitrarily chosen, based on some worst-case accident calculations and the idea that 10 miles was big enough to involve all interested local communities along with county and state officials.

States, communities, and utilities joined to plan and practice for emergencies. Not until the mid-'80s did governors Mario Cuomo in New York and Michael Dukakis in Massachusetts refuse to participate in planning. They found it politically attractive to tie up the licensing of Shoreham and Seabrook. (Several other governors toyed with the idea, and then backed off.)

The costs of the two plants have risen dramatically as interest payments pile up. New Hampshire Public Service Company is bankrupt. Shoreham is to be sold for $1 so New York can keep its much-needed electricity from ever being generated.

This is a high price for society to pay for a prudent response to a painful lesson.

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