What's Wrong With the NRC Fact Sheet on the 1979 Accident?
Re-published by Three Mile Island Alert - February 2009
Originally published March 2004
Because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission continues to publicize false
information about the TMI accident, we correct the record once again. The
NRC’s erroneous statements are listed in the red text which follows.
“The main feedwater pumps stopped running, caused by either a mechanical
or electrical failure, which prevented the steam generators from removing
The problems did not start with the feedwater pumps, trouble began in the
condensate polisher system. The NRC reported this in 1979 but states that
they don’t need to know the exact cause of the condensate polisher valves
failure. No one knows why the accident began to this day.
“Signals available to the operator failed to show that the valve was still
open… In addition, there was no clear signal that the pilot-operated relief
valve was open.”
Because TMI had been falsifying reactor leak rates to the NRC in the weeks
leading to the accident, operators had learned to ignore the most obvious
sign that the PORV had stuck open and that coolant was being lost through
this pathway. The high temperature reading at the PORV drain line was a
clear indication that coolant was escaping. But, operators had become
accustomed to this anomaly because of the criminal falsification which
allowed this condition to exist for several weeks.
It should be noted that if the company had operated lawfully, the plant
would have been shut down for repairs and there would have been no
accident on March 28, 1979.
It is also noteworthy that NRC inspectors at TMI during the weeks before
the accident failed to find or note the reactor coolant leak. Later, the
company pleaded “no contest” to federal charges of criminal falsifications
On May 22, 1979, former control room operator Harold W. Hartman, Jr. tells
the NRC investigators that Metropolitan Edison - General Public Utilities had
been falsifying primary-coolant, leak rate data for months prior to the
accident. At least two members of management were aware of the practice.
NRC investigators do not follow-up or report the allegations to the
On February 29, 1984, a plea bargain between the Department of Justice and
Met Ed settled the Unit 2 leak rate falsification case. Met Ed pleaded guilty
to one count, and no contest to six counts of an 11-count indictment.
“In a worst-case accident, the melting of nuclear fuel would lead to a
breach of the walls of the containment building and release massive
quantities of radiation to the environment. But this did not occur as a result
of the Three Mile Island accident.”
It was only by luck that the reactor walls were not breached. The industry
conjectured that voids in the coolant prevented molten fuel from burning
through the reactor walls. It is not known if these voids will form to prevent
a total meltdown in future accidents. Fifteen million curies of radiation is a
“The accident caught federal and state authorities off guard.”
State officials had no means to measure radiation at the scene. They had to
take field samples and return to their laboratories. This was not an effective
way to acquire real-time data or collect data on gaseous releases. Their data
collection abilities were insufficient to determine release rates. The NRC no
longer monitors radioactive releases at reactor sites.
“They did not know that the core had melted, but they immediately took
steps to try to gain control of the reactor and ensure adequate cooling to the
Reactor core measurements taken during the first morning showed that fuel
might have melted. This data was cast aside because operators believed it
was not possible and therefore erroneous. During the first day, the NRC in
fact distanced itself from the company by stating it did not tell them how to
run their plant and that they were overseers of regulatory matters. Initially,
the NRC was more interested in hiding from responsibility than offering
advice to the company.
“Helicopters hired by TMI's owner, General Public Utilities Nuclear, and
the Department of Energy were sampling radioactivity in the atmosphere
above the plant by midday. A team from the Brookhaven National
Laboratory was also sent to assist in radiation monitoring.”
By mid-morning, citizens (many who had not heard about the accident) were
reporting a metallic taste in their mouths. Because the reactor had been
leaking for several weeks, the reactor drain tank was full and a pathway to
the environs had already been created by valves aligned to handle the
leaking coolant and facilitate the falsification of the leak rates.
Additionally, at the time of the accident, GPU reported that radiation monitors
went off- scale, filters were clogged and other monitoring devices “disappeared.”
Therefore, we do not know how much radiation escaped undetected into the
atmosphere. Still, the Columbia Study found increased cancer incidence,
including lung cancer, from 1975-1985.
“In an atmosphere of growing uncertainty about the condition of the plant,
the governor of Pennsylvania, Richard L. Thornburgh, consulted with the
NRC about evacuating the population near the plant. Eventually, he and
NRC Chairman Joseph Hendrie agreed that it would be prudent for those
members of society most vulnerable to radiation to evacuate the area.
Thornburgh announced that he was advising pregnant women and pre-
school-age children within a 5-mile radius of the plant to leave the area.”
The NRC’s agreed-upon conditions of a reactor which would require
evacuation of nearby communities had already been met two days earlier on
Wednesday, Nov. 28. Governor Thornburgh complained often about the
conflicting and confusing data coming from the plant and the NRC.
“...even though it led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members
of the nearby community.”
In August 1996, a study by the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill,
authored by Dr. Steven Wing, reviewed the Susser-Hatch study (Columbia
University; 1991). Dr. Wing reported that "...there were reports of erythema,
hair loss, vomiting, and pet death near TMI at the time of the accident...
Accident doses were positively associated with cancer incidence.
Associations were largest for leukemia, intermediate for lung cancer, and
smallest for all cancers combined... Inhaled radionuclide contamination
could differentially impact lung cancers, which show a clear dose-related
Findings from the re-analysis of cancer incidence around Three Mile Island
is consistent with the theory that radiation from the accident increased
cancer in areas that were in the path of radioactive plumes. "This cancer
increase would not be expected to occur over a short time in the general
population unless doses were far higher than estimated by industry and
government authorities," Wing said. "Rather, our findings support the
allegation that the people who reported rashes, hair loss, vomiting and pet
deaths after the accident were exposed to high level radiation and not only
suffering from emotional stress.”
Even under normal operating circumstances nuclear plants release radiation.
The NRC acknowledged that 12 people are expected to die as a direct
result of normal operation and releases for each commercial nuclear
reactor that is granted a license extension of 20 years.
The admission came in a correction to its relicensing regulation, which
the NRC published in the Federal Register on July 30, 2001. According to the
Federal Register notice, each relicensing is expected to be responsible for
the release of 14,800 person-rem of radiation during its 20-year life
extension. The figure includes releases from the nuclear fuel chain that
supports reactor operation, as well as from the reactors themselves. The
NRC calculates that this level of radiation release spread over the population
will cause 12 cancer deaths per reactor.
“But new concerns arose by the morning of Friday, March 30. A significant
release of radiation from the plant’s auxiliary building, performed to relieve
pressure on the primary system and avoid curtailing the flow of coolant to
the core, caused a great deal of confusion and consternation.”
This was not by accident or design. The release was perpetrated by a lone
operator acting on his own and without permission or consultation with
anyone else. There were no regulatory repercussions resulting from his
“Today, the TMI-2 reactor is permanently shut down and defueled, with the
reactor coolant system drained, the radioactive water decontaminated and
evaporated, radioactive waste shipped off-site to an appropropriate disposal
site, reactor fuel and core debris shipped off-site to a Department of Energy
facility, and the remainder of the site being monitored.”
The reactor was destroyed. No one knows how much fuel remains in the
reactor core debris. Some estimates have placed it at 20 tons of uranium.
Unit #2 is still releasing small amounts of radiation to the air and water.
“The accident was caused by a combination of personnel error, design
deficiencies, and component failures.”
Also add to the list: criminal activity, the NRC’s failure to disseminate
safety data, NRC inspection and enforcement failures, failure to fix
problems noted by control room operators, sloppy control room
housekeeping and economic gain placed above safety.
“Upgrading and strengthening of plant design and equipment requirements.
This includes fire protection…”
A reactor safety division specifically created to spot problem trends in the
wake of the TMI accident was abolished by NRC executives in 1999.
According to the NRC’s Office of Inspector General, only half of NRC
employees feel it is safe to bring up new safety problems in 2003. One
former NRC employee stated those who do have their careers harmed by
For more than a decade, the NRC was aware that the fire protection material
Thermolag was defective and burned at the same rate as plywood. The NRC
was aware that Thermolag’s manufacturer has falsified test results yet did
nothing to fix the problem. Finally the NRC asked TMI to remove
Thermolag. Two years after that request, TMI was again asked to remove
Thermolag. The NRC and TMI were very slow to act.
“Expansion of NRC's resident inspector program - first authorized in 1977 -
whereby at least two inspectors live nearby and work exclusively at each
plant in the U.S to provide daily surveillance of licensee adherence to NRC
At Davis Besse, there was no chief inspector for a year. Inspectors find fewer
than 2 percent of problems identified at the plants. The NRC has decreased total
inspection man-hours in recent years.
“The installing of additional equipment by licensees to mitigate accident
conditions, and monitor radiation levels and plant status…”
The NRC no longer monitors radiation at the plants. On many occasions, the
communication lines from the control room computers to the NRC are found
to be inoperable.
“Employment of major initiatives by licensees in early identification of
important safety-related problems, and in collecting and assessing relevant
data so lessons of experience can be shared and quickly acted upon…”
Oh, if this were only true. Drastic employee cutbacks and overburdened
workers and engineers have little time and are reluctant to raise safety new
issues. TMI Alert has learned of TMI employees who simply “up and quit”
due to the excessive work load.
“July 1980 Approximately 43,000 curies of krypton were vented from the
For 11 days, in June-July, 1980, Met Ed illegally vented 43,000 curies of
radioactive Krypton-85 (beta and gamma; 10 year half life) and other
radioactive gasses into the environment without having scrubbers in place.
In November 1980, the United States Court of Appeals for the District of
Columbia ruled that the krypton venting was illegal.
By 1993, TMI-2 evaporated 2.3 million gallons of accident-generated
radioactive generated water, including tritium, a radioactive form of
hydrogen (half life; 12.5 years), into the atmosphere despite legal objections
from community-based organizations.
The NRC fails to point out that it had ignored for more than a year prior to
the accident, a newly discovered safety problem which did occur at TMI.
Voids in the coolant created by a poor design of piping caused reactor
pumps to cavitate and vibrate violently. These vibrations threatened to
destroy the pumps. The coolant pumps had to be turned off during the height
of the accident.
The NRC’s role in the accident is one of tacit permissiveness. The attitude of
the industry was criticized by the President’s Commission above all other
factors. Three Mile Island Alert has observed that safety conditions and
attitudes are returning to the level evidenced by the industry in 1979. Many
of the so called “permanent” changes have been downgraded since the time
of their installation. The NRC inspectors have little confidence in the newly
implemented regulatory process according to a January 2000 GAO
investigation. The new regulatory process handcuffs the ability of inspectors
to pursue safety problems at the plants. Unless a suspicious condition is
deemed clearly dangerous, the new process doesn't allow the implementation
of other than routine inspections.
The Davis Besse near-miss is a prime example. The NRC did not have a
resident inspector there for one year. Although there was clear evidence of a
leaking reactor, the NRC initially denied possession of the “smoking gun” –
a picture of the red crud which had formed on the outside of the reactor
vessel. The NRC had in fact ignored the problem to allow the plant to
continue operating.1 Determining that something is clearly dangerous is
apparently still a subjective skill at the NRC.
There are many outstanding safety issues identified by the NRC following
the accident which have still not been corrected. One example is the
vulnerability of electrical cables during an accident which can electrically
short circuit. Another example is the PORV valve which released the coolant
during the accident – it is still not rated as a “safety item.”
Three Mile Island Alert - March 2004
“When nuclear regulators fixed blame for failing to notice that there was a hole in the lid
of the Davis-Besse reactor in Ohio, they spent little time criticizing the role played by
their new oversight rules.
Those rules, seeking to reduce overly burdensome regulations, in 2000 replaced the
subjective, nit-picky set of guidelines that had governed power plant inspections for
But documents obtained by a watchdog group show that a special Nuclear Regulatory
Commission task force last year had in fact intended to blame the new regulatory system
in part for the slipshod inspections at Davis-Besse. Before the task force's report was
complete, however, NRC staff had removed a section on the shortcomings of the NRC's
new reactor oversight process.
The final report - an indictment on the agency and plant owner FirstEnergy Corp. - did
list possible improvement to the oversight process. But it was far less sweeping and less
critical than the earlier suggestions.”
Plain Dealer, 5/16/03