A Three Mile Island Primer

As the attorney who represented the community group TMI Alert during the legal battle over the "restart" of the Three Mile Island Unit 1 reactor (the sister plant to the damaged Unit 2), I learned quite a bit about this accident that was never supposed to happen (sound familiar?). Here is a short TMI primer:

In the early hours of March 28, 1979, the nuclear core at TMI-2, located in Middletown, Pennsylvania just outside of Harrisburg, was uncovered for about 2 ½ hours until a shift supervisor finally guessed that water was leaving the reactor through a stuck-open valve. Workers shut the valve, but not in time to prevent much of the core from melting, followed by several days of chaotic attempts to stabilize this out-of-control plant. (Learn more here.) But for two days, officials at GPU, the company in charge, did not tell the public or the government what they knew or how serious this was. The Chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Joseph Hendrie, said, "We are operating almost totally in the blind, his [Governor Richard Thornburgh's] information is nonexistent, mine is ambiguous and - I don't know - it's like a couple blind men staggering around making decisions." In fact, by the time an evacuation was ordered of children and pregnant women who lived within a five-mile radius of the plant (upon fears of a hydrogen explosion), and 200,000 people fled their homes (and I fled my State Senate law school internship!), the most serious danger had passed.

There is no record of how much radiation escaped during the accident. All radiation monitors in the vent stacks at TMI-2, where 80 percent of the radiation escaped, went off scale and thus were inoperable for three days. But we do know that in July 1980, GPU illegally (with the NRC's approval) vented 43,000 curies of radioactive Krypton-85 and other radioactive gases directly into the atmosphere for 11 days.

Because of the NRC's position that little radiation escaped during the accident or its aftermath, many believe that the government failed to conduct responsible health studies from the beginning. Dr. Gordon MacLeod, who was then Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, tried to be responsible but he was later fired. He found, for example, that many abnormal babies were born that year with serious thyroid problems. He wrote,

During the first two quarters of 1978, the neonatal mortality rate within a ten-mile radius of Three Mile Island was 8.6 and 7.6 per 1,000 live births, respectively. During the first quarter of 1979, following the startup of accident prone Unit 2, the rate jumped to 17.2; it increased to 19.3 in the quarter following the accident at TMI and returned to 7.8 and 9.3, respectively, in the last two quarters of 1979.

As far TMI-2's "clean up", which will never conclude, Philadelphia Inquirer reporters Jim Detjen and Susan FitzGerald found that clean up workers were often sent into radioactive parts of TMI-2 without adequate protective gear or respirators; workers were routinely given already contaminated clothing to wear; and equipment meant to detect radiation hazards for workers often malfunctioned. No health registry was set up to monitor the health effects for workers. One worker was fired for insisting he wear a respirator. The company settled his Department of Labor complaint. In 1983, three clean up workers were fired or retaliated against after raising safety concerns about clean up operations.

In 1989, the clean up stopped. TMI-2 was mothballed, leaving high levels of contamination and small amounts of fuel in the reactor building, which will remain dangerous for decades.

Unit 1- The Undamaged Reactor.

After the TMI-2 accident, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission ordered TMI-Unit 1 -- the undamaged reactor -- shut down until completion of hearings and development of a sufficient record to provide assurance the facility could safety resume operation. It promised that it would make its decision whether to permit restart on the basis of these hearings. It didn't. The NRC voted to restart the plant in May 1985, before hearings were finished, to the objection of the Governor Thornburgh (who then sued in court), both U.S. Senators from Pennsylvania, the area congressional delegate, a resolution of the Pennsylvania Senate, countless local officials and community sentiment, which had voted 2 to 1 and 3 to 1 against restart in surrounding county referendums.

Among the information that had surfaced at these hearings was evidence that the company allowed the accident to happen by placing its own financial considerations before safety -- by allowing operation before construction was complete, by providing those running the plant with insufficient resources to maintain safety, by violating regulatory requirements and criminal laws to keep the plant operating when it should have been shut down for repairs. The company later pled guilty to falsifying critical leak rate data and destroying documents for months leading up to the accident.

The NRC, of course, wanted to handle all of this internally and objected to the criminal plea. Here is how the U.S. Attorney responded to that (see Transcript of Proceedings, Change of Plea and Sentencing, United States of America v. Metropolitan Edison Co., (M.D. Pa), Criminal Docket No. 83-00188 (Feb. 28, 1984):

This notion that the NRC investigation - whatever on earth that is - is "a far superior vehicle" to these proceedings today is utter poppycock. I had not intended to address this issue, but I cannot stand silent and allow the charade that has been carried on by the NRC to be treated as anything but that. We are the only institution since the accident occurred that has made the slightest damn effort to see this thing through to a conclusion. The NRC has not conducted any meaningful investigation; to this day has used as a pretext the fact that the Grand Jury was conducting an investigation as a vehicle to avoid addressing its responsibilities. ... Mr. Curran seems to raise the issue that we are not to worry if there are any loose ends here today because the NRC will take care of it. It is utterly delusional. The NRC doesn't care what is in the indictment; they have said so. They don't care what the outcome of this case is; they have said so. They are going to proceed and do whatever they want to...

The TMI-1 restart case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Supreme Court Justice William Brennan blocked restart of the plant for a short time, but the full court eventually came and reversed him. The plant restarted in October 1985.

For those who think "that was then, this is now" and everything is better today, take a look at the 14 "near misses" at U.S. nuclear plants during 2010 reported by the Union of Concerned Scientists.

If you're still not convinced that nuclear energy should be an unacceptable risk for any nation, I've got a mothballed nuclear reactor sitting in Central Pennsylvania that I'd like to sell you.