Location: New York
Author: Ken Silverstein, EnergyBiz Insider, Editor-in-Chief
Date: Tuesday, February 20, 2007
By nearly all accounts, the accident in March 1979 is one of the primary impediments to a nuclear renaissance. While the thought of radiation escaping into the atmosphere is well-appreciated, it is the function of policymakers and utility officials -- and the reporters assigned to cover them -- to effectively communicate their message so as to properly inform the public.
Fears of a "hydrogen bubble" in which radioactive material could devastate the surrounding Pennsylvania towns were palpable. But neither government nor industry could organize a response to quell the unease. Reporters, meantime, gravitated toward those with the most hyperbolic views.
"There was so much speculation and it was all fueled by people who didn't have a background in nuclear technology," says George Koodray, who managed a radio news station near the plant. Koodray, who now is a communications pro in New Jersey, says he has since spent years trying to "undo the damage" that he helped create.
"There were dramatic images of corporate conspiracies -- all supported by events within a time period in which there were oil interruptions and a blockbuster movie called `China Syndrome,' Koodray adds. "Reporters back then were exposed to atom bombs and mushroom clouds and they felt that the plant could go off like a nuclear bomb."
Three Mile Island has made an indelible mark on American energy policy. While 103 nuclear reactors are operating here, none have been ordered in the United States since the 1970s. Even before the scare, India successfully tested a nuclear device in 1974 and gave rise to fears over global nuclear proliferation.
The same trepidation is around today. But, there is now a strong emphasis on reducing greenhouse gas emissions while trying to diversify the nation's energy mix. That's why the U.S. government is offering billions in incentives to expand nuclear energy, which has resulted in the consideration of about 30 such plants.
Before that would occur, the industry must explain what went wrong in Unit 2 on March 28, 1979 and what it has learned in the intervening years. Around 4 a.m. that day, following a loss of feedwater flow, a primary coolant system relief valve lifted and failed to shut. This resulted in a loss of primary coolant, uncovering the reactor core and causing a partial core meltdown. While the matter took 14 years and $1 billion to clean up, the second of the two units, Unit 1, remains operational today.
Faulty equipment meant to detect the malfunction is partially to blame. But, a lack of emergency training along with disparate communications compounded the whole mess. By 7 a.m. that same morning, panic had arisen over a "hydrogen bubble" that could explode.
The terror only escalated when the facility's owner, Metropolitan Edison, told the public it didn't feel as if it had to report every nuance of the situation. Pennsylvania's governor also complained that he was unable to get answers, all of which led to five frightful days in which areas as far as 300 miles away from Harrisburg were advised they might need to evacuate. Calm would not prevail until President Carter came to reassure the people.
"There was a clamor to get out of D.C.," says Jeff Dennard, president of his own consulting firm in Warwick, R.I. In 1979, he headed media relations for a former congressman from New Mexico before going on to run a communications division for the parent of Three Mile Island. "It felt like every person for themselves."
The fright was no doubt bona fide. But the reality is that hydrogen in the core could not congeal and explode; rather, it would safely combine with oxygen. And while state leaders and utility officials can be faulted for not having emergency preparedness plans, many in the media failed to ensure knowledgeable sources were given a proper forum -- experts, who from day one, were saying radiation levels were not harmful.
The press, unfortunately, is often behind the curve. It's a problem partly of its own making as many organizations are more intent on focusing on the sensational instead of matters of real substance. In the case of Three Mile Island, more journalists should have departed from the herd. Reporters should have been talking not just to activists but also to nuclear scientists and engineers who could separate fact from fiction.
The goal is to get to the truth, not obscure it. Conflicting messages from a variety of sources contributed to the public's fear. And while radiation was released from the plant, it never presented any dangers to the surrounding areas -- all confirmed after endless environmental investigations and legal challenges. Despite the melting of about one-third of the fuel core, the reactor vessel contained the damage and no one was hurt or killed.
The PR Battle
Winning the ongoing PR battle is atop the nuclear industry's agenda. To do so, companies such as General Electric, Areva NP and Westinghouse are developing state-of-the art reactors that have multiple safety measures and are designed to cope with any sudden loss of cooling. And over the last 25 years, the industry has performed well and implemented a number of new safety standards, all of which has harnessed increasing public support.
The nuclear industry is known for its technicians and not its media savvy. It must continue to evolve and work toward a culture of openness and accessibility. It must allay legitimate worries and plan for the "unthinkable." While no company can replicate a potential disaster, preparing and practicing for them can mitigate damages. Those at the top must demonstrate empathy and communicate all known facts to address concerns.
"There's a natural tendency when we talk about things that are potentially catastrophic to hide the bad news," says communications expert Dennard. "If there is bad news, get it out as fast as you can and as factually as you know at that moment. Don't get out anything if you do not know."
Three Mile Island taught the nuclear industry, along with the rest of corporate America, to disseminate information during a crisis in a coherent and forthright manner. That apparent inability coupled with the preconceived ideas that reporters had toward nuclear power helped to increase the emotional intensity in March 1979. Now, nearly 28 years later, those powerful feelings are subsiding and giving the industry and the public a chance to reason with one another.