The Nuclear Accident at Three Mile Island: Day 3

Friday March 30, 1979



from the President's Commission report

Part 1

The TMI-2 reactor has a means of removing water from the reactor coolant system, called the let-down system, and one for adding water, called the make-up system. Piping from both runs through the TMI-2 auxiliary building, and NRC officials suspected that leaks in these two Systems explained the sporadic, uncontrolled releases of radioactivity. They were also concerned about levels in the make-up tank and the two waste gas decay tanks inside the auxiliary building. Water from the let-down system flows into the make-up tank. In that tank, gases dissolved in the reactor's cooling water at high pressure are released because the tank1s pressure is lower, much as the gas bubbles in a pressurized carbonated beverage appear when the bottle is opened. These gases, under normal circumstances, are compressed and stored in the waste gas decay tanks. NRC officials worried that if the waste gas decay tanks filled to capacity, relief valves would open, allowing a continuing escape of radiation into the environment. That concern and what Commission Chairman Kemeny would later call a "horrible coincidence" resulted in a morning of confusion, contradictory evacuation recommendations, and eventually an evacuation advisory from Governor Richard Thornburgh.

About halfway through his midnight-to-noon shift on Friday, James Floyd, TMI-2's supervisor of operations, decided to transfer radioactive gases from the make-up tank to a waste gas decay tank. Floyd knew this would release radiation because of leaks in the system, but he considered the transfer necessary. The pressure in the make-up tank was so high that water that normally flowed into it for transfer to the reactor coolant system could not enter the tank. Floyd, without checking with other TMI and Met Ed officials, ordered the transfer to begin at 7:10 a.m. to reduce the tank's pressure. This controlled release allowed radioactive material to escape into the auxiliary building and then into the air outside. Thirty-four minutes later Floyd requested a helicopter be sent to take radiation measurements. The chopper reported readings of 1,000 millirems per hour at 7:56 a.m. and 1,200 millirems per hour at 8:01 a.m., 130 feet above the TMI-2 vent stack.

Part 2

At NRC headquarters, Lake Barrett, a section leader in the environmental evaluation branch, was concerned about the waste gas decay tank level. The previous evening, he had helped calculate "a hypothetical release rate" for the radiation that would escape if the tank's relief valves opened. Shortly before 9:00 a.m., Barrett was told of a report from Three Mile Island that the waste gas decay tanks had filled. He was asked to brief senior NRC staff officials on the significance of this. The group included Lee Gossick, executive director for operations; John Davis, then acting director of Inspection and Enforcement; Harold Denton, director of Nuclear Reactor Regulation; Victor Stello, Jr., then director of the Office of Operating Reactors; and Harold Collins, assistant director for emergency preparedness in the Office of State Programs. During the briefing, Barrett was asked what the release rate would mean in terms of an off-site dose. He did a quick calculation and came up with a figure: 1,200 millirems per hour at ground level. Almost at that moment, someone in the room reported a reading of 1,200 millirems per hour bad been detected at Three Mile Island. By coincidence, the reading from TMI was identical to the number calculated by Barrett. "It was the exact same number, and it was within maybe 10 or 15 seconds from my first 1,200 millirems per hour prediction, Barrett told the Commission.

The result was instant concern among the NRC officials; "an atmosphere of significant apprehension," as Collins described it in his testimony. Communications between the NRC headquarters and Three Mile Island had been less than satisfactory from the beginning. "I think there was uncertainty in the operations center as to precisely what was going on at the facility and the question was being raised in the minds of many as to whether or not those people up there would do the right thing at the right time, if it had to be done," Collins testified. NRC officials proceeded without confirming the reading and without knowing whether the 1,200 millirem per hour reading was on- or off-site, whether it was taken at ground level or from a helicopter, or what its source was. They would later learn that the radiation released did not come from the waste gas decay tanks. The report that these tanks had filled was in error.

After some discussion, Harold Denton directed Collins to notify Pennsylvania authorities that senior NRC officials recommended the Governor order an evacuation. Collins telephoned Oran Henderson, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency, and, apparently selecting the distance on his own, recommended an evacuation of people as far as 10 miles downwind from Three Mile Island. Henderson telephoned Lieutenant Governor Scranton, who promised to call the Governor. A Henderson aide also notified Thomas Gerusky, director of the Bureau of Radiation Protection, of the evacuation recommendation. Gerusky knew of the 1,200 millirem reading. A telephone call to an NRC official at the plant reinforced Gerusky's belief that an evacuation was unnecessary. He tried to telephone Governor Thornburgh, found the lines busy, and went to the Governor's office to argue personally against an evacuation.

Kevin Molloy, director of emergency preparedness for Dauphin County, had received a call from Met Ed's James Floyd at 8:34 a.m., alerting him to the radiation release. Twenty minutes later, the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency notified Molloy of an on-site emergency and an increase in radiation, but Molloy was told that no evacuation was needed. Then at 9:25 am., Henderson called Molloy and told him to expect an official evacuation order in 5 minutes; the emergency preparedness offices in York and Lancaster counties received similar alerts. Molloy began his preparations. He notified all fire departments within 10 miles of the stricken plant, and broadcast a warning over radio station WHP that an evacuation might be called.

At Three Mile Island, NRC's Charles Gallina was confronted by a visibly upset Met Ed employee shortly after Molloy's broadcast. "As the best I can remember, he said, 'What the hell are you fellows doing? My wife just heard the NRC recommended evacuation,'" Gallina told the Commission. Gallina checked radiation readings on- and off-site and talked with an NRC reactor inspector, who said "things were getting better." Then Gallina telephoned NRC officials at Region I and at Bethesda headquarters in an attempt "to call back that evacuation notice."

Shortly after 10:00 a.m., Governor Thornburgh talked by telephone with Joseph Hendrie. The NRC chairman assured the Governor that no evacuation was needed. Still, Hendrie had a suggestion: that Thornburgh urge everyone within 5 miles downwind of the plant to stay indoors for the next half-hour. The Governor agreed and later that morning issued an advisory that all persons within 10 miles of the plant stay inside. During this conversation, Thornburgh asked Hendrie to send a single expert to Three Mile Island upon whom the Governor could rely for technical information and advice.

About an hour later, Thornburgh received a telephone call from President Carter, who had just talked with Hendrie. The President said that he would send the expert the Governor wanted. That expert would be Harold Denton. The President also promised that a special communications system would be set up to link Three Mile Island, the Governor's office, the White House, and the NRC.

Thornburgh convened a meeting of key aides to discuss conditions at Three Mile Island. During this meeting, at about 11:40 a.m., Hendrie again called the Governor. As Gerusky recalls the conversation that took place over a speaker phone, the NRC chairman apologized for the NRC staff error in recommending evacuation. Just before the call, Emmett Welch, an aide to Gordon MacLeod, had renewed the Secretary of Health's recommendation that pregnant women and children under age 2 be evacuated. Thornburgh told Hendrie of this. Gerusky recalls this response from Hendrie: "If my wife were pregnant and I had small children in the area, I would get them out because we don't know what is going to happen." After the call, Thornburgh decided to recommend that pregnant women and preschool children leave the region within a 5-mile radius of Three Mile Island and to close all schools within that area. He issues his advisory shortly after 12:30 p.m..

Thornburgh was conscious throughout the accident that an evacuation might be necessary, and this weighed upon him. He later shared some of his concerns in testimony before the Commission:

There are known risks, I was told, in an evacuation. The movement of elderly persons, people in intensive care units, babies in incubators, the simple traffic on the highways that results from even the best of an orderly evacuation, are going to exert a toll in lives and injuries. Moreover, this type of evacuation had never been carried out before on the face of this earth, and it is an evacuation that was quite different in kind and quality than one undertaken in time of flood or hurricane or tornado. . . . When you talk about evacuating people within a 5-mile radius of the site of a nuclear reactor, you must recognize that that will have 10-mile consequences, 20-mile consequences, 100-mile consequences, as we heard during the course of this event. This is to say, it is an event that people are not able to see, to hear, to taste, to smell. . . .

Part 3

Relations between reporters and Met Ed officials had deteriorated over several days. Many reporters suspected the company of providing them with erroneous information at best, or of outright lying. When John Herbein arrived at 11:00 a.m. Friday to brief reporters gathered at the American Legion Hall in Middletown, the situation worsened. The press corps knew that the radioactivity released earlier had been reported at 1,200 millirems per hour; Herbein did not. He opened his remarks by stating that the release had been measured at around 300 to 350 millirems per hour by an aircraft flying over the Island. The question-and-answer period that followed focused on the radiation reading -- "I hadn't heard the number 1,200," Herbein protested during the news conference - - whether the release was controlled or uncontrolled, and the previous dumping of radioactive wastewater. At one point Herbein said, "I don't know why we need to tell you each and every thing that we do specifically. . . " It was that remark that essentially eliminated any credibility Herbein and Met Ed had left with the press.

The next day, Jack Watson, a senior White House aide, would telephone Herman Dieckamp, president of Met Ed's parent company, to express his concern that the many conflicting statements about TMI-2 reported by the news media were increasing public anxiety. Watson would suggest that Denton alone brief reporters on the technical aspects of the accident and Dieckamp would agree.931

Part 4

The radiation release, Molloy's announcement of a probable evacuation, and finally the Governor's advisory brought concern and even fear to many residents. Some people had already left, quietly evacuating on their own; others now departed. "On March 29 of this year, my wife and I joyously brought home our second daughter from the hospital; she was just 6 days old," V.T. Smith told the Commission.

"On the morning of the 30th, all hell broke loose and we left for Delaware to stay with relatives." By Saturday evening, a Goldsboro councilman estimated 90 percent of his community's residents had left.

Schools closed after the Governor's advisory. Pennsylvania State University called off classes for a week at its Middletown campus. Friday afternoon, " . . . still having heard nothing from Three Mile Island," Harrisburg Mayor Paul Doutrich drove with his deputy public works director to the TMI Observation Center overlooking the nuclear facility. There they talked for an hour with Met Ed President Creitz and Vice President Herbein. "Oddly enough, one of the things that impressed me the most and gave me the most feeling of confidence that things were all right was that everybody in that area, all the employees, the president and so forth, were walking around in their shirt sleeves, bare-headed," Doutrich told the Commission. "I saw not one indication of nuclear protection."

Friday, Saturday, and Sunday were hectic days in the emergency preparedness offices of the counties close to Three Mile Island. Officials labored first to prepare 10-mile evacuation plans and then ones covering areas out to 20 miles from the plant. The Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency recommended Friday morning that 10-mile plans be readied. The three counties closest to the nuclear plant already had plans to evacuate their residents -- a total of about 25,000 living within 5 miles of the Island. A 10-mile evacuation had never been contemplated. For Kevin Molloy in Dauphin County, extending the evacuation zone meant the involvement of several hospitals -- something he had not confronted earlier. There were no hospitals within 5 miles. Late Friday night, PEMA told county officials to develop 20-mile plans. Suddenly, six counties were involved in planning for the evacuation of 650,000 people, 13 hospitals, and a prison.

Friday was also the day the nuclear industry became deeply in-volved in the accident. After the radiation release that morning, GPU President Dieckamp set about assembling an industry team to advise him in managing the emergency. Dieckamp and an aide talked with industry leaders around the country, outlining the skills and knowledge needed at TMI-2. By late Saturday afternoon, the first members of the Industry Advisory Group had arrived. They met with Dieckamp, identified the tasks that needed immediate attention, and decided who would work on each.

Part 5

Harold Denton arrived on site about 2:00 p.m. Friday, bringing with him a cadre of a dozen or so experts from NRC headquarters. Earlier in the day, NRC had learned of the hydrogen burn or explosion that flashed through the containment building Wednesday afternoon. The NRC staff already knew that some form of gas bubble existed within the reactor system. Now it became obvious that the bubble, an estimated 1,000 cubic feet of gases, contained hydrogen. And as an estimated 1,000 cubic feet of gases, contained hydrogen. And as Denton would later recall in his deposition, the question arose whether there was a potential for a hydrogen explosion. Throughout

Friday, Denton operated on estimates provided him before he left Bethesda, which indicated that the bubble could not self-ignite for 5 to 8 days. Denton focused his immediate attention on finding ways to eliminate the bubble.

At about 8:30 p.m. Friday, Denton briefed Governor Thornburgh in person for the first time. Fuel damage was extensive; the bubble posed a problem in cooling the core; no immediate evacuation was necessary, Denton said. Then the two men held their first joint press conference. The Governor reiterated that no evacuation was needed, lifted his advisory that people living within 10 miles of Three Mile Island stay indoors, but continued his recommendation that pregnant women and preschool children remain more than 5 miles from the plant.

Part 6

Shortly after 4:00 p.m., Jack Watson, President Carter's assistant for intergovernmental affairs called Jay Waldman, Governor Thornburgh1s executive assistant. The two disagree about the substance of that call. In an interview with the Commission staff, Waldman said Watson asked that the Governor not request President Carter to declare a state of emergency or disaster:

He said that it was their belief that that would generate unnecessary panic, that the mere statement that the President has declared this area an emergency and disaster area would trigger a substantial panic; and he assured me that we were getting every type and level of federal assistance that we would get if there had been a declaration. I told him that I would have to have his word on that, an absolute assurance, and that if that were true, I would go to the Governor with his request that we not formally ask for a declaration.

Watson and his assistant, Eugene Eidenberg, both said in their Commission depositions that the White Rouse never asked Governor Thornburgh not to request such a declaration. Whatever was said in that Friday conversation, the Governor made no request to the President for an emergency declaration. State officials later expressed satisfaction with the assistance provided by the federal government during the accident and immediately after. They were less satisfied, however, in August with the degree of assistance and cooperation they were receiving from federal agencies.

Part 7

Officials of the U.S. Department of Health, Education Welfare (HEW) had become concerned about the possible release of radioactive iodine at Three Mile Island and began Friday to search for potassium iodide -- a drug capable of preventing radioactive iodine from lodging in the thyroid. The thyroid absorbs potassium iodide to a level where the gland can hold no more. Thus, if a person is exposed to radioactive iodine after receiving a sufficient quantity of potassium iodide, the thyroid is saturated and cannot

absorb the additional iodine with its potentially damaging radiation. At the time of the TMI-2 accident, however, no pharmaceutical or chemical company was marketing medical-grade potassium iodide in the quantities needed.

Saturday morning, shortly after 3:00 a.m., the Mallinckrodt Chemical Company agreed to provide HEW with approximately a quarter million one-ounce bottles of the drug. Mallinckrodt in St. Louis, working with Parke-Davis in Detroit and a bottle-dropper manufacturer in New Jersey, began an around-the-clock effort. The first shipment of potassium iodide reached Harrisburg about 1:30 a.m. Sunday. By the time the last shipment arrived on Wednesday, April 4, the supply totalled 237,013 bottles.

- - - end of Day 3 narrative - - -

Day 4