Critics say TMI forgot '79 lessons

Two former spokesmen for the nuclear plant say they're surprised Exelon waited more than 5 hours to announce a radiation leak.

By Jan Murphy 

The Three Mile Island nuclear station's former operators learned from the 1979 partial reactor meltdown that there's no such thing as overcommunication about TMI.

Two former spokesmen for GPU Nuclear Corp., which operated the facility after the 1979 accident, said that based on lessons learned from that incident, they subsequently alerted local officials about every minor event at the plant, such as when an ambulance was called or a steam release was loud.

They issued so many notifications that officials receiving them complained.

"The operation of a nuclear power plant is based on trust, and communication is an exercise in trust," said Douglas Bedell of Cornwall, who was a communication manager for GPU Nuclear.


Bedell and Joe Benish, who joined GPU Nuclear's communication staff six months after the 1979 accident, said they find it puzzling that Exelon Corp., which operates the facility now, did not alert state officials to last Saturday's radiation leak inside a TMI reactor building until more than five hours after it occurred.


"If they are ignoring those kinds of lessons learned that served us and the industry well, that's unfortunate, and it doesn't serve the public or the industry well," Benish said.


Ralph DeSantis, a spokesman for Exelon, said he understands that communication is key.


"I think Exelon does a really good job at it almost all the time," DeSantis said. "When we look at Saturday, we know there are some things we could have done better, and we'll keep looking at it."


He and others met with state and county officials this week to discuss ways to improve communication.


"We're incorporating their suggestions on how we can better keep them informed of events while at the same time acknowledging in today's world with technology the way it is with cell phones, the Internet, instant messaging, that as hard as we try to be the first to get to people, there are times we won't," DeSantis said.


Officials said last week's radiation leak was minor and posed no public health threat. The leak inside the Unit 1 containment building occurred at 4 p.m. when radioactive dust unexpectedly blew out of a pipe that was being cut as part of work associated with the replacement of the plant's steam generators.


Most of the 150 people working nearby had exposure levels of below 10 millirems. Nineteen had slightly higher exposure, but the higher levels of radiation were about the same received from an X-ray, based on federal Environmental Protection Agency information.


An airborne monitor outside the building detected a slight increase in radioactivity directly outside a hole in the containment building that had been cut as part of the generator replacement work , according to Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But the level quickly returned to normal, and radiation was not measurable off site.


"It never had the potential to threaten public health and safety, and even for workers, it was a minor event," DeSantis said.


Because the incident wasn't visible off site, he said, company officials decided it didn't require prompt notifications to county and state officials that occur when a minor incident labeled an "event of potential public interest" happens. Still, DeSantis said Exelon planned to issue a news release about the incident later that night.


The "event of potential public interest" classification was created after the 1979 accident. It was intended to inform officials of incidents that are not of public consequence but could draw onlookers' attention, Bedell said.


He said he tends to think an incident that sent 150 workers home falls into that category.


Daryl LeHew, the chairman of the Londonderry Twp. supervisors, said he was notified of the incident at 8:35 that night. Middletown Mayor Robert Reid can't recall what time he was informed, but it was his call to Dauphin County's emergency management officials in search of more information about 9:30 p.m. that tipped off county officials.


They, in turn, notified the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency.


Gov. Ed Rendell criticized the company's handling of the incident as unacceptable. But LeHew said he has no problem with Exelon's response.


He appreciated that company officials waited until they had accurate information to share before making notifications. He faulted Rendell for not calling him or Reid about what they thought of the company's response before commenting about it.


"We were treated fairly, and everyone that should have been contacted was contacted," LeHew said.


Reid said he was surprised county officials hadn't been alerted before he contacted them, but he thinks that will change.


"I believe Exelon learned a lesson from the incident the other day. Anything that happens down there now, all local officials are going to be notified," he said.


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