Categories: Crisis management / Energy issues / History of PR / Three Mile Island

26 April 2010

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Three Mile Island: BBC gets it wrong

Veteran journalist Martin Bell’s account of the TMI accident of 1979 relied on his own memories of the event and on archive material and fresh interviewing, but Bell has ignored a mass of evidence, which would tell a very different tale to the one broadcast on 17 June, 2006, in BBC Radio 4’s Archive Hour.

Oddly, Bell not only misses the point about the original fears caused by the accident, he misses the point about the accident’s continuing iconographic status for anti-nuclear opinion.

“We didn’t know it at the time”, Harold Denton tells Martin Bell, for this BBC Radio 4 Archive Hour programme. The former official of the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission was discussing how the core meltdown had occurred at the very outset of the incident, which occurred at Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, TMI2, at 4am on 28 March 1979.

The irony was that the plant operators, the media and government officials were to spend the next five days worrying about what the consequences of a meltdown would be. Most commentators thought it would be catastrophic.

As the world held its breath, the worst type of nuclear disaster had already happened with so little consequence that it went unnoticed. Three days into the crisis, Walter Cronkite, the veteran US broadcaster, set the scene vividly on his CBS nightly national bulletin:

“Good evening. The world has never known a day quite like today. It faced the considerable uncertainties and dangers of the worst nuclear power plant accident of the atomic age. And the horror tonight is that it could get much worse. It is not an atomic explosion that is feared, the experts say that is impossible, but the spectre was raised of perhaps the next most serious kind of nuclear catastrophe, a massive release of radioactivity. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission cited that possibility with a announcement that while it is not likely the potential is there for the ultimate risk of a meltdown at the Three Mile Island atomic power plant outside Harrisburg Pennsylvania.”

So: the fear was the massive release of radioactivity which it was assumed would certainly follow from a core meltdown. And nearly everyone was wrong: ignorant and well-informed alike, insider and observers, pro- and anti-nuke, they all missed the two interesting facts of the event. Firstly, there had been a core meltdown. Secondly, it didn’t matter.

What they knew was that things had gone badly wrong. Never before had the nuclear industry lost control of one its plants so dramatically. The more they investigated the incident the more they came to realize that their original assumptions were not valid.

Meanwhile, the world’s media recorded every bewildered – mostly rather honest though often factually wrong – response from the plant’s operators. The imagined threat was dissected minute-by-minute by the global media in a way that had never been done before. This wasn’t quite rolling news but came closer to it than had ever been seen before. It was a foretaste of how a badly handled crisis fanned by media coverage could shape public perception regardless of the final outcome or the real threats posed. In the case of Three Mile Island, twenty-seven years on and the fears and myths persist.

That is why I looked forward to Martin Bell’s recent hour-long Radio 4 programme. After all, it was he who, on hearing of the accident, chartered a plane without permission or worries about budget – those were the days – to send himself to Harrisburg to report on the unfolding events live for the BBC.

He arrived in time to hear the plant’s spokespersons report that they would be back online “within days”.  Later they said:

“The plant is in a safe condition. We may have some minor fuel damage, but we don’t believe at this point that it is extensive. Radiation levels at the site boundary are really only at a tenth of the general emergency level where we would normally get concerned. We do have our crews out, we are monitoring for airborne contamination. The amounts we have found is minimal, very small traces of radioactivity had been released from the plant.”

This report was at least right about the radiation levels.

Martin Bell remembers that he wasn’t convinced. “They would say that, wouldn’t they?”, he felt. Bell tells that others weren’t convinced either, including the staff and students of Dickinson College in the town of Carlisle twenty miles away from the plant. They started a project immediately, which they called the “Reaction to the Reactor”.  It is their interviews of 400 people, which they have now opened as an oral history of the accident, that provide the hook for Martin Bell’s retrospective report.

From the site in 1979 he reported accurately:

“Nerves have been greater because news has been slow in coming out and some of the assurances given by the company have proved to be less than well-founded in fact. People knowing not what to believe tend to believe the worst.”

As Martin Bell takes us back to the control room at the centre of the Three Mile Island accident 27 years ago, we hear the voice of US Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s historian Samuel Walker telling us how the plant’s operators coped:

“The accident occurs at 4 o’clock on a Wednesday morning.  The control room is chaotic. People become aware fairly quickly, not right away, that there is a serious accident. No one knows exactly what the cause of the accident is. Throughout the day on Wednesday people at the utility that ran the plant, Metropolitan Edison, the NRC and elsewhere try to figure out what exactly happened, what the causes of the accident were, what the condition of the plant is, and what the dangers are that you are going to have a major release of the dangerous forms of radiation. I think it is safe to say that chaos was a good way to describe it. Not that anyone panicked. The operators were doing all they could. They were in a terrible position because they knew something serious was happening, but they didn’t know what. No one knew what until much later in the day. What they didn’t know was that within an hour and half or so after the accident began at 4 o’clock in the morning on March 28 1979 the core started to melt, the worst thing that can happen to a nuclear reactor.”

On that first day of the accident, the company’s communicators worked backwards from the perimeter fence to draw their conclusions. They were perfectly correct to say that any recorded increase in radioactivity was minimal to insignificant. They felt able to reassure about the safety because the core should have been properly flooded and cooling and they genuinely believed that was the case. If the core had melted, they, like everybody else, expected radiation levels at the perimeter to have been much higher than they were. Indeed, the evidence – which proved to be misleading – available to the operator at the time suggested the water level was adequate in the reactor.

Moreover, as Harold Denton – President Carter’s trouble shooter from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, who took control on the ground on day three – tells Martin Bell:

“We called it at the time (three days into the accident) fuel damage. And I think my mentality was like everybody else’s in the country at the time was that we had built in so much redundancy and diversity and protection systems that you couldn’t have a serious core meltdown. Everybody realised in the back of their mind that’s what resulted from a total failure, but the chances of that were thought to be extremely remote.”

The statements from Metropolitan Edison, however grounded in orthodox thinking, did great harm. Given the worrying anomalies already apparent, it was rash to claim publicly that the reactor was “in a safe condition”. They were plainly wrong to broadcast “reassuring” certainties about the reactor’s expected return to normal service, the condition of the plant and the likely consequences of the accident. But none of these glaring mistakes are the same thing as evidence of a cover-up. It reads more like an amateurish communication cock-up, not least because the company readily made each new embarrassing development public as they experienced it or as they came to understand it.

By the evening of March 28 things looked to be improving as the reactor cooled down and the operators began to get more water into the reactor core. However on the morning of Friday, March 29 there was renewed concern over a large release of radiation into a nearby auxiliary building, which was “performed to relieve pressure on the primary system and avoid curtailing the flow of coolant to the core”.

The impact of this on the public and media was powerful. The voice of Dickinson College employee Charles Sellers put it like this, “I developed resentments about conflicting reports and what seemed to me to be reassurances based on very little actual evidence.  And what seemed to me to be very evident attempts to say things carefully always with concern about image in mind. It didn’t take me long to have a feeling they didn’t know the heck what they were talking about.”

It was at this point that the authorities felt pressurized into being seen to do something to protect the public, even though there was no evidence of actual danger. Their determination grew even stronger when it was reported that there was a new and unexpected development. A hydrogen bubble emerged in the reactor, which led to new fears of a hydrogen-oxygen explosion that could release the core contents to atmosphere causing devastation. It was later proved that this eventuality was impossible. The ongoing uncertainty, however, caused anxiety in the local community until the situation was properly explained and contained by Sunday, April 1 1979.

Martin Bell reported at the time:

“The news from the TMI plant got worse. First there’d been an uncontrolled release of radioactive gas in the number two reactor. Then a massive bubble of gas some fifteen feet in diameter had formed near the top of the reactor complicating the cooling process so that a meltdown, the ultimate nuclear accident at such a plant, became a real possibility.”

On the Friday, the governor of Pennsylvania, Richard L. Thornburgh, decided that a precautionary evacuation of pregnant women and pre-school children living within a five-mile radius of the plant was advisable as they were clearly the most susceptible group to radiation poisoning. All schools were also closed. These moves, however, created their own unintended problems of deepening public distrust and anxiety.

As one of the archived voices put it, “it is the fact as a human being all radiation is bad and you do not have to be pregnant or a child to try and avoid that situation”.  Another was convinced the authorities were not telling the public everything, “otherwise why would they ask us to evacuate”. People old and young started either leaving or stocking up on food.

It all smacked of a real life China Syndrome, a film about a runaway nuclear core meltdown at a power station with major offsite consequences, then showing to packed cinemas around the globe. It starred Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Nicholson and focused on a company-orchestrated cover-up, and a brave media battling for truth. It reinforced the major fear of the age concerning all things nuclear.

The crisis at Three Mile Island ended on Sunday, April 1 when it became clear that the reactor was under control and that the hydrogen bubble had no potential to explode whatsoever. That day US President Jimmy Carter visited Middletown, the town closest to the plant, to reassure residents that all that could be done to ensure their safety was being done.

Since then there have been 27 years in which to take a cold and objective look at what happened. And it is in this light that one can only criticise Martin Bell’s report for being scaremongering, unbalanced and unhelpful. But before we examine Martin Bell’s misleading reporting, let’s briefly review two positive outcomes of Three Mile Island.

The first is that it led to improved personnel training, improved design of control panels and other equipment that were exposed as deficient, including many components. Regulations were strengthened. Readers who want full details of the specific causes of the accident and lessons learned can obtain them from For any readers requiring still more depth the report of The President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island is available online.

Second: Three Mile Island had a major impact on how the PR industry has since handled public perception issues in crisis situations.  In short, the lessons learned at Three Mile Island were of direct relevance to other industries prone to modern scaremongering and very real industrial accidents. Hardly any of today’s major PR agencies does not handle crisis management. Most companies with contentious issues to manage have emergency contingency plans of some sort permanently in place. Hence, today’s public is much better served than were the residents living close to Three Mile Island in 1979.

Now let me return to Martin Bell.  He has had almost 30 years in which to reflect on the impressions that the accident made on him. Unfortunately he still seems prone to believe scaremongers and conspiracy theories, rather than to trust governments, regulatory bodies, industry, medical science, investigation and evidence. Moreover, he makes little attempt at balancing the various points of view. Let me give examples.

Martin Bell begins to wind-up his report by saying, “to this day it is not known what if any the health effects were.” That statement is not founded in fact. As one weighty report puts it, “no radiation effects have been reported among the surrounding population because exposures were small relative to normal background radiation”.

Moreover, when the issue came up in court in 1996 as a class action suit alleging that the accident caused health effects, the judge dismissed the accusations saying:

“The parties… have had nearly two decades to muster evidence in support of their respective cases…. The paucity of proof alleged in support of Plaintiffs’ case is manifest. The court has searched the record for any and all evidence which construed in a light most favourable to Plaintiffs creates a genuine issue of material fact warranting submission of their claims to a jury. This effort has been in vain.”

Yet Bell gives a lot of time and voice to Joyce Corradi, who in 1979 was a worried mother of four children whose eldest son fell ill within hours of the accident. She tells how, “when we got to my parents’ home… my son said he was very sick. We went to the bathroom and he threw up. He threw up a vile green slime that was comparable to the colour of [uncertain] cleanser, which frightened me very much. I called a paediatrician and he said he honestly did not know what that could be.  It concerned me that much, I started going to meetings to find out what was really going on. I talked to a doctor who specialised in working with the people of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and when he interviewed me I asked him to answer one of my questions. What was that that happened to my son? He said that was a classic case of radiation sickness poisoning.”

One can only assume that she was not worried enough to visit a hospital when her son was actually ill. Instead she opted for a consultation on the phone (if I interpret the term “called” correctly). She was concerned enough, however, to start attending activist meetings. Through that effort she later received another doctor’s opinion that suggested her son had had radiation sickness. However, it would appear that he never saw the son either. One wonders how her son is today. My beef is not that Bell quoted her dubious account, it is that he did not interrogate it or allow a counter claim. Instead he hid behind the “we still don’t know what if any” tease.

Stephen Reed, the Mayor or Harrisburg, elected three years after the accident, is given a platform to put his conspiracy theory:

“One of the little known facts, I am curious as to why this never got more attention than what I thought it should: there were stack monitors at the highest points of the plant and they had the capability of measuring 1000 REMs (not milli-REMs – REMs) more than a lethal dose to put it mildly – and those stack monitors – I think there were eight of them – were stuck at their highest measuring point for approximately eight hours. So that means that the emissions exceeded 1000 REMs but they had no capability of measuring beyond 1000 REMs. And this went on for about eight hours. And there has never been all that much attention paid to that. The truth is that we have no idea how much was emitted from that plant and I don’t know there is any way we will ever know.”

These are really serious accusations. However, as Martin Bell does not follow up on the veracity of the Mayor’s claim, or interrogate it in any way, it seems safe to assume he was not curious to know why the measurements from the eight stacks were “ignored’. And of course, the “we will never know” comment is allowed to stand unchallenged despite all that we do know being clear.

The Mayor goes on making claims:

“We came within 15 percentile of a total core meltdown. The consequences of that would have dramatically catastrophic. You (Martin Bell) are seated right now approximately 11 miles from the plant, sitting in my office in the heart of Harrisburg Pennsylvania. You would not be in Harrisburg Pennsylvania today had there been an entire core meltdown. This would be a nuclear wasteland for certainly hundreds if not thousands of years. As a result to the extent that were areas of this country that may have been receptive or conducive to nuclear power in their midst that evaporated rapidly in those very hectic seven days in 1979.”

Why an entire core meltdown would have been so much worse than an 85% meltdown is not interrogated at all. How the Mayor is qualified to be so certain is not communicated. No industry source, no independent source either, is asked to clarify this alarmist, scaremongering assertion made by a local politician. The imbalance here is obvious.

Moreover Martin Bell had access to experts such as Harold Denton who could have answered important technical questions, as could many other industry sources if he had been minded to ask. For instance, Harold relates how it took a while to realise the full extent of the accident:

“It was probably a couple years before the situation got cleaned up inside the plant well enough to be able to take the reactor vessel head off and look. I remember distinctly that they were lowering a TV camera down in the containment in order to look at the core. And they put it one foot in the core and they looked around and nothing was visible. And everyone shook their heads and says what was going on, we must have a faulty measurement about how far down the camera is. Let’s lower it another foot. They lowered it another foot and still nothing was visible. So they had to lower the camera down about half through reactor core before they discovered that beneath the camera were this molten bed of reactor material – stainless steel and control rods, reactor core and everything else had actually melted as if in a blast furnace with steel.

“The biggest danger happened before I ever got there. The core melted the first four hours of the accident and had resolidified later that same day when the operators realised they were losing water in the core and started putting water back in the core.”

Martin Bell also interviews Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert, a local anti-nuclear campaign. Epstein says:

“TMI2 was a lemon from the get go. It had been rushed online in late ’78 to qualify for insurance and take breaks. It had only been online 90 days.

“In my opinion, it is an accident without an end. The accident is over when they clean the plant up. But they have no plans to do that. I tell people there hasn’t been a human entry into the basement in 27 years, [and] they’re surprised. It would be lethal. It’s a radioactive waste site. Having a radioactive waste site on an island on a river in your backyard we don’t consider a success story.”

Again, Martin Bell makes no attempt to question or seek a counteracting point of view. Epstein and Reed’s claims contradict the investigations made by the industry, its regulators and by the US President’s Commission, none of whom are asked to comment on this major point. Much has actually been done to decommission and render safe the aftermath of the accident at TMI2.  Moreover, if TMI2 was such a lemon, how comes TMI’s other reactors are still operational today?

Martin Bell concludes his report saying: “We do know that the Three Mile Island meltdown was much worse than we feared at the time.” The use of the word “we’ is interesting. The fear at the time among most people in the media and in the local community was that a core meltdown would spew radiation across Pennsylvania creating a nuclear wasteland. There were fears of explosions, too. Or as Martin Bell put it 27 years ago, “people knowing not what to believe tend to believe the worst.”

In fact, the almost-entire core meltdown had occurred before most people awoke on the morning of 28 March, 1979. Not even the operators were aware of this fact immediately so effective was the confinement and so uneventful was the meltdown of the fuel and the fuel elements. So was it much worse than predicted (by the nuclear community or by the media and campaigners)? Why not admit that it taught us a lot about accidents? For instance: they are bound to happen, and don’t always matter. And here’s another thing we learn: we won’t know all there is to know about an accident in the days after it happens. And another: we can be sure journalists and campaigners will stand by the cliches they started with.

Ends. Dated 2006

One response to “Three Mile Island: BBC gets it wrong”

  1. […] with nuclear scaremongering, not least because the public has an appetite for horror stories. At Three Mile Island in 1979 the meltdown occurred at the outset of the shutdown. The media and politicians then spent weeks terrorizing the […]