IT'S NOT SO MUCH the China syndrome as the Vietnam syndrome that has been work in the relationship between the public and spokesmen for government and industry in the Three Mile Island accident. We mean that confidence in the veracity, competence and good faith of those dishing out the offical information is under challenge, even as their perennial critics enjoy a corresponding increase in credibility. Will the hard-line anti-nuclear protesters prove to have been right? Will event after event show that the government had been deceiving both itself and the public on questions of nuclear safety? All that is what recalls Vietnam.
So the administration, in the person of the president, sought to reassure the public. He flew to the site of the accident. He assumed "personal responsibility" for informing people about both this accident and the "status of nuclear safety" from here on out. That did not satisfy those who think the area should in fact have been evacuated immediately. But it is not clear, either, how much the president's gesture reassured the great middle mass of people who have had no particular views on or expertise in nuclear safety. And that is because the act of reassurance itself has, over the years, become not just part of the recurrent drama of disillusion, but on some (unfortunately) unforgettable occasions, a cynical element in the attempt to spin the public.
In atomic affairs generally and in the Pennsylvania accident in particular, the problem has been made worse by a number of things: The wretched record stretching back for more than a quarter of a century of high-level temporizing and lying about these questions, only recently reversed by the relatively newly created Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the spooky, unfathomable and arcane nature of the threat as people perceive it-soundless, odorless, invisible poison, the downward plunge of confidence that comes when a Babel of spokesmen from the industry and the government and among the protesters and critics bombard the public with contradictory assertions and advice.
In some respects you could say the administration only worsened the problem by making so much material available on an hour-by-hour basis. But the provision of a wealth of data surely was necessary to convince people that the federal government (never mind the Metropolitan Edison spokesmen) was leveling with them.It is also our impression that the federal government generally, not just the NRC, rose pretty well to the grisly challenge of dealing with the emergency. There seems to have been an uncommonly effective and relatively speedy translation of the scientific/technological elements of the threat into the language of choice that government understands and has to act on.
The government's obligations, however, are only beginning. The process of reassuring the public can only rest on a solid and demonstrably thorough reconsideration of the safety standards and pratices and engineering assumptions that underlie the present and near-future generations of nuclear reactors. And it is worth remembering that this will be undertaken against the skepticism-provoking background of the common public knowledge that the administration has been counting on nuclear energy to help get the country over the short-term energy crisis.
It occurs to us that one important signal the president could give now, in addition to the reviews and investigations he has planned, would be to reappoint to the NRC Commissioner Victor Gilinsky, whose term runs out at the end of June. There has been a certain amount of tugging and hauling within the administration over this, in large part, it is said, because of Mr. Gilinsky's tendency to press questions of safety regardless of cost and delay. Not such a bad thing to be known for this week-or any other. From the point of view of rebuilding public confidence in the nuclear-energy program however that program may emerge from review-it seems to us that the reappointment of Mr. Gilinsky should be high on the president's list of things to do.