"I personally think the crisis is over"
Metropolitan Edison vice president and spokesman John G. Herbein at an 11 a.m. news conference.
"The crisis won't be over until we have the core in the cold shutdown mode. . . that won't be for at least several days."
-Harold R. Denton, head of the Nuclear Reactor Regulation Division of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, one hour later.
Amid the complexities of trying to understand what has happened at the crippled Three Mile Island nuclear plant near here, the sharp conflict between government and utility spokesmen has developed into an issue of its own.
The conflicting statements by the spokesmen have caused frustration and anger among local and state officials here. Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh expressed some of that anger the other day when he told reporters "there are a number of conflicting versions of every event [at the reactor] that seems to occur."
The sharp disagreement between the federal nuclear experts and the utility, which operates the plant, was all the more evident during back-to-back news conference conducted by Metropolitan Edison and the NCR here today.
During those conference, spokesman for the two groups gave these widely differing accounts of what was taking place to crowds of reporters who have poured into this little community from all over the world:
An explosion, apparently from collecting hydrogen gas in the malfunctioning nuclear reactor, occurred after the star of the accident early Wednesday. Company officials said today the potentially dangerious blast went off at 2 p.m. Thursday. The NRC says it is certain the blast occurred not long after the start of the nuclear accident at 4 a.m. Wednesday 34 hours earlier.
Company officials say they have been in close contact with federal experts since the accident. The NRC's Denton said no one from Metropolitan Edison bothered to tell his crew about the hydrogen blast until 10 a.m. Friday, more than two days after it occurred. During that time additional hydrogen gas we still collecting in the reactor, officials said.
Untility officail Herbein assured reporters today that the dangerous and delicate process of removing hydrogen gas from a 1,000-cubic-foot potentially explosive bubble just above the reactor's overheated core was started Friday evening and that the degasification of the bubble was "the first step" in resolving the tricky problem of shutting down the reactor.
Denton-who assured another news conference Friday that no shutdown steps would be taken for several days and not without notifying the public-said he did not learn about the degasification until this morning, over a dozen hours after it began.
Herebin told reporters today that the gas bubble decreased one-third in size overnight because of the degasification. That statement, if correct, wouldsubstantially lower possible danger to the reactor from the bubble.
But in the following press conference Denton said the bubble's size was "essentially unchanged." He dismissed the degasification as a potentially dangerous and unacceptable solution to the shutdown problem. According to the two spokesmen the degasification was an agreed-upon first step in the shut-down process [Met Ed] or an "experiment" [NCR].
Since the chaotic events began after the accident, the utility and federal and state officials have also disagreed over the potential danger from the crippled reactor, the amount of radiation escaping into the surrounding neighborhood and the need for evacuation of people living nearby.
By themselves the disagreements could be dismissed as routine bureaucratic wrangling over who is running the show here as more than a hundred nuclear experts converge on the Three Mile Island site.
But with the the threat of a letahl raidoactive release continuing for nearly one million nearby residents, the conflicts in public statements have raised both confusion and uneasiness here in south central Pennsylvania.
Metropolitan Edison president Walter M. Creitz indicated that some of the confusion might be cleared up soon. Creitz said this morning that his company had decided to stop holding news conferences and would issue information only through prepared news releases.
Future news conferences on the Three Mile Iland situation would be handled by the NCR, Creitz said.