The Three Mile Island accident was like the fire that killed three Apollo astronauts in 1967, the House Science and Technology Committee said yesterday: Both refocused public attention on safety issues.
Rep. Mike McCormack (D-Wash.), chairman of the energy research subcommitee, released a report on nuclear power plant safety in light of the Pennsylvania accident that said "severe reactions by the local residents . . . and the public in general" were the most significantresult.
"Three Mile Island will do for nuclear power what the Apollo fire did for the U.S. space program," McCormacksaid. "While the fire halted progress of the space programfor more than a year and a half, it represented a critical event which served to redirect efforts and focus added attention and resources on insuring safety."
The fact that no one died at Three Mile Island and that "insignificant" radition was released means that "the basic defense-in-depth concept was demonstrated as effective," McCormack wrote. "The most fundamental lesson of TMI . . . is that accidents can happen. This has led to increased attention being given to safety."
McCormack, whose subcommittee held extensive hearings on nuclear-plant safety last year, said "severe reactions"by the public were "greatly exacerbated by the press coverage." He cited testimony that called evening television news reports "the most depressing, the most terrifying" of all news sources.
In a dissent at the end of the report, Reps. Howard Wolpe (D-Mich.) and Richard Ottinger (D-N.Y.) said the study is "a classic example of blaming the victim." The panel members called the report "ideological rather than analytical in its approach" and said McCormack's hearings included no critics of nuclear power. They said calling the accident an educational experience is like saying more accidents are needed to perfect nuclear safety.
Members of McCormack's subcommittee urged the management of Three Mile Island tohold "frequent, candid press conferences" but "their recommendation was not adequately heeded," the report said. "There is as yet no mechanism for adequately informing the publicof the risks associated with alternative energy sources, including nuclear power."
The subcommittee called for a government information campaign on the relative safety of nuclear power compared with other energy sources. It is "unrealistic" to tie nuclear power's future to the provision of detailed evacuation plans that aren't required for other potentially hazardous energy sources such as dams, he said.
The report compared the average amount of radiation received around Three Mile Island during the accident to the extra radiation that would result from spending one week in Denver's high altitude. The highest individual dose of about 70 millirem equals one chest X-ray, the study said, adding that charges of deficient monitoring equipment around the reactor hadn't been substantiated.
Releases where "far, far, far below" anything that could have caused thyroid problems or animalillnesses that some Pennsylvanians are attributing to the accident, McCormack said.