Governing in a Nuclear Crisis
Former Pennsylvania governor Richard Thornburgh was in his first year in office in March 1979 when the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island forced his administration to confront the possible evacuation of thousands of people. Twenty years after the crisis, Thornburgh joined us live today from his Washington, D.C., law office to discuss how he handled the nation's worst commercial nuclear accident. Read the transcript below.
Thornburgh's decision-making on whether to evacuate was frustrated by confusing signals from experts at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the utility that operated the power plant on the Susquehanna River -- just 10 miles from his office in Harrisburg. Thornburgh, who later served as U.S. attorney general in the Bush administration, eventually advised children and pregnant women to leave the immediate area of the plant. Four days after the accident, he accompanied then-President Jimmy Carter on a tour of the power plant to calm public fears about the threat of a deadly meltdown or explosion.
Our first question for the governor was from Washington, D.C.
Washington, D.C.: How confident or nervous did you feel going on that tour of the plant shortly after the start of the crisis? How likely did the chance of a meltdown seem to you given the information you were receiving at the time? And how do you feel about it all now 20 years later?
Richard Thornburgh: My tour of the plant didn't occur until Sunday after the accident, April 1, and in the company of President and Mrs. Carter and only after assurances from NRC officials that there was no hazard involved. We now know that a partial meltdown did occur but there was never any hard information that the so-called "China Syndrome" was ever a likelihood. It's obviously a very difficult experience to forget. I'm grateful that our prayers were answered and that the consensus view seems to be that there are no adverse long-term health or environmental consequences of the event.
St. Louis, MO: Often people like to refer to the "accident" at Three Mile Island, but didn't a meltdown actually occur?
Richard Thornburgh: We now know that there was a partial meltdown as a result of the accident on March 28, 1979, but the general consensus seems to be that no adverse long-term health or environmental consequences resulted.
Wynnewood, PA: Since nuclear power has for decades now been shown to be the safest and cleanest form of energy, why aren't more nuclear generating plants being built? This would allow the closing of power plants using fossil fuels which generate terribly toxic and carcinogenic products.
Richard Thornburgh: It is true that the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island stopped the nuclear energy business in its tracks. We have, however, about 100 or so currently operating nuclear facilities in the United States which account for approximately 20 percent of our electrical energy needs. Increased safety measures by plant operators and heightened scrutiny by federal and state regulators have greatly increased the cost of nuclear energy. However, the requirements of the Kyoto protocol respecting fossil fuels and the recent action of the OPEC countries may well prompt a reconsideration of nuclear energy, now a much safer source than in 1979, on both environmental and cost grounds.
Lancaster, PA: When the event at TMI occurred what were your first reactions? Did you think you could handle the situation? What did people expect from you and did you expect anything from others (ex. from the community)?
Richard Thornburgh: I first learned of the accident on Wednesday morning, March 28, 1979, at about 10 minutes before 8:00 when I received a phone call from our director of emergency management. My first thought was that, even though I knew little of nuclear technology, no accident at a nuclear plant could be anything but serious.
I knew we would have to face the question of whether or not to order an evacuation of the nearly quarter of a million people within the area affected and set about to secure the necessary information upon which to base any such decision. This proved to be extremely difficult as many contradictory versions of the facts were forthcoming from the utility and various other experts as to the severity of the conditions at the site. We worked hard to preserve our credibility by releasing only such information as we were confident in and by correcting any misleading information that found its way into the public domain. This effort was frustrating in the extreme due to the wide variety of sources, many of which were ill-informed or uninformed.
On Friday, March 30, I finally requested of President Carter that he send a personal representative to the site to help us gather reliable information. The arrival of his representative, Harold Denton, proved to be a turning point in the episode since he was able to translate nuclear jargon into plain English and earned the confidence of me and my staff, the news media, and the general public.
College Park, MD: Do you believe that the NRC should be relicensing nuclear power plants to keep operating for another generation beyond their original licenses, especially considering that their new licensing program was instituted as a response to industry demands for more "certainty" in the licensing process after their original relicensing program shut down the first applicant because it was unsafe?
washingtonpost.com: This is an issue in Maryland, where Baltimore Gas and Electric Co. is seeking permission to extend the license for the Calvert Cliffs nuclear power plant beyond its scheduled expiration in 2014. (See Martha Hamilton's story on the industry in Saturday's Post.)
Richard Thornburgh: Obviously any licensing or relicensing of nuclear facilities by the NRC has to take full account of health, safety, and environmental factors. Since the 1979 TMI accident, much more scrutiny has been given to these matters than was the case prior thereto. As to particular facilities, I would have to defer to persons familiar with their situation as I am not possessed of sufficient background information to evaluate their status.
Monrovia, Maryland: What have been the environmental impacts?
Richard Thornburgh: Most of the studies that were undertaken following the TMI accident indicated a minimal environmental impact. Fears were expressed at the time of the accident that economic and community development efforts in central Pennsylvania would suffer as a result of the fear that might linger following the accident. This did not prove to be the case and today this area is thriving. Moreover, concerns expressed about the marketability of agricultural products produced within the area were never realized as well. In short, the area potentially affected by the accident appears to have bounced back within a relatively short period of time and today shows no adverse residual effects.
washingtonpost.com: Did your family take any special precautions after the accident?
Richard Thornburgh: Short answer, no.
Yucca Valley, CA: Why was a school bus chosen to transport former President Jimmy Carter to the nuclear plant? Was it that a bunch of big black cars would have been flocked by the locals?
washingtonpost.com: The photo gallery in our special report on Three Mile Island includes images from President Carter's visit to the plant, including a picture of the school bus this reader is asking about. Gov. Thornburgh is pictured with Carter in the plant's control room (he is wearing glasses and standing behind the president).
In addition to explaining the school bus, can you tell us what effect Carter's visit had? Did you agree with his decision to come?
Richard Thornburgh: We welcomed President Carter's visit with Mrs. Carter as a means of helping to demonstrate that any crisis surrounding the accident had passed by Sunday, April 1. The image of the President and Mrs. Carter and the governor of Pennsylvania visiting the accident site we felt could not help but reassure people on this score. As to why a school bus was used, I have no idea but would speculate because of the large number of officials and staff involved it was an easier way to convey them to the site. There was nothing sinister involved in using the school bus I am sure.
Swarthmore, PA: Governor Thornburg, 20 years after the accident, hundreds of protestors rallied against nuclear power. Do you believe that the construction and use of nuclear power plants are still a contentious issue among the general public, or has most public opposition to nuclear power faded over the years?
Richard Thornburgh: It seems to me that in the aftermath of the changes made in the regulation of currently operating nuclear facilities that public concern has been lessened substantially over the last 20 years. There have been and always will be those who oppose nuclear power as a matter of principle. However, the number of persons motivated solely by concern over safety issues at presently operating facilities does not appear an appreciable factor today.
Lake Placid, NY: How thoroughly did you review the information recorded by your Hot Line during the accident? Isn't it true that you received about 7,000 calls and at least some of these were reports of symptoms which you would have from exposures of radiation -- high doses?
Richard Thornburgh: I don't recall the exact number of calls received by the hot line but they were numerous indeed. I visited the facility during the TMI episode and know that all calls were recorded and reviewed by appropriate state personnel. I would further assume that any symptoms of radiation effects would be referred to the Department of Health and would have been included in the subsequent studies carried out by a variety of experts. We did institute a cancer registry with respect to those within the potential area of concern to track any long-term significant effects from the accident in this respect as well.
Harrisburg, PA: What do you recall about the suspicions of sabotage?
Richard Thornburgh: Nothing.
washingtonpost.com: What was your position on the restart of Three Mile Island's Unit 1 reactor, which was not involved in the accident?
Richard Thornburgh: We strongly urged the commission to apply rigorous standards of review on matters respecting health, safety and environmental questions in proceedings that were eventually resolved by the Supreme Court of the United States. So as to ensure that any of the lessons learned from the Unit 2 accident were applied in any decision with respect to the restart of Unit 1.
Hershey, PA: In contrast to Three Mile Island, what specific experience as governor or attorney general would you categorize as the high point of your career?
Richard Thornburgh: It's rather hard to classify the ordeal of Three Mile Island as a high point but I was proud of the response which state government made to this unprecedented accident. High points in my term as governor, however, related mostly to the economic rejuvenation of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, our ability to reduce both corporate and individual tax rates, cut the state's record indebtedness, and balance budgets for eight successive years. During my service as attorney general, high points had to be an unprecedented crack down on white collar crime, extending international cooperation to combat drug trafficking and terrorism, and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, a landmark civil rights law.
Washington, DC: Looking back, when were you most scared, when were you most relieved? And have you had any major changes of mind over the last two decades about nuclear power?
Richard Thornburgh: I've often noted that I had little time to be personally frightened during the accident because of the constant press of the responsibility for the well being of nearly a quarter of a million central Pennsylvanians. The high points of my concerns were largely due to false or misleading information conveyed to the general public which required countermanding from my office. For example, the bogus evacuation recommendation from the NRC on Friday morning, March 30; the so-called "bubble" in the reactor reported on Saturday evening, March 31; and various news accounts exaggerating the potential for a nuclear meltdown throughout the incident.
As a result of TMI, my level of skepticism about nuclear power was substantially raised and, like most Americans, I no longer took for granted the fact that this source of electric power was as risk-free as its promoters had indicated in its early years. This attitude has, I believe, resulted in a number of changes that make today's operating nuclear facilities much less risky than those in operation prior to the TMI accident.
washingtonpost.com: That was our last question for former Gov. Thornburgh. We appreciate his time, and thank you for your questions.
Please return tomorrow at 11 a.m. for a live discussion with Washington Post staff writer Martha M. Hamilton, who will answer your questions about the nuclear power industry since Three Mile Island.
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