After the accident at the Three Mile Island power generating plant on March 28, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission went into "continuous" meetings on March 30.
The meetings continued whenever a quorum of three commissioners was present with tape recorders keeping an account of the conversations.The last of the meetings was April 2, when the crisis diminished measurably.
Following are excerpts of transcripts of the tapes, made available Thursday by the NRC after Rep. Toby Moffett (D-Conn.) threatened to subpoena them for use by a congressional committee.
Friday, March 30
The discussion was about evacuation of an area near the plant due to fear that radiation escaping from the reactor might cause public health damage. It was one of the tensest periods in the entire sequence of events.
DENTON: Yes, I think the important thing for evacuation to get ahead of the plume is to get a start rather than sitting here waiting to die. Even if we can't minimize the individual dose, there might still be a chance to limit the population dose.
COMMISSIONER GILINSKY: Well, what did they tell them, was it for the northeast quadrant?
CHAIRMAN HEADRIE: Yes.
COMMISSIONER BRADFORD: It ought to be made clear that you are not talking about lethal doses . . .
DENTON: But the people at the site are obviously much better to direct and run emergency plans than we are, and I would hope the plant people and our own people are really monitoring what is going on in there and acting on it from moment to moment. . . . It just seems like we are always second, third hand: second guessing them. We almost ought to consider the chairman talking to the owner of the shop up there and get somebody from the company who is going to inform us about these things in advance if he can, and then what is doing about it if he can't. We seem not to have that contract.
GILINSKY: Well, i seems to me we better think about getting better data.
FOUCHARD: Well, the governor is waiting on it, and Mr. Chairman, I think you should call Gov. Thornburgh and tell him what we know . . . The Civil Defense people up there say that our state programs people have advised evacuation out to five miles in the direction of the plume. I believe that the commission has to communicate with that government and do it very promptly . . .
FOUCHARD: Don't you think as a precautionary measure there should be some evacuation?
HENDIRE: Probably, but I must say, it is operating totally in the blind and I don't have any confidence at all that if we order an evacuation of people from a place where they have already gotten a piece of the dose they are going to get into an area where they will have had .0 of what they were going to get and now they move some place else and get 1.0.
(The discussion continued in that vein-what to do about the radiation dangers and how to extract answers out of the confusion at the plant.)
DENTON: Well, people who go up there fall into a morass. It seems like they are never heard from. It seems like you might want to consider having something like rotating shifts through senior people there in the control room or in a room off the control room that we could communicate with about these kinds of things directly. I would be happy to volunteer and see how things go along for a while . . .
HENDIRE: Now, Joe, it seems to me I have got to call the governor-
FOUCHARD: I do. I think you have got to talk to him immediately.
HENDIRE:- to do it immediately. We are operating almost totally in the blind, his information is ambiguous, mine is non-existent and - I don't know, it's like a couple of blind men staggering around making decisions . . .
(Hendrie reached Thornburgh in Harrisburg. The governor expressed some displeasure with limited and conflicting information he had been getting. He wanted some authoritative word about the need for evacuation. Hendrie said it would be desirable to "suggest" that people within five miles of the plant stay indoors that morning, which Thornburgh did later. But the governor still was puzzled.)
THORNBURGH: Was your person, Mr. Collins, in your operations center, justified in ordering an evacuation at 9:15 a.m. or recommending that we evacuate at 9:15 a.m., or was that based on misinformation? We really need to know that.
HENDIRE: I can't tell what the - I can go back and take a check, governor, but I can't tell you at the moment. I don't know -
THORNBURGH: Okay. That would be extremely helpful, because if we get any further recommendations, we really have to know what the basis of those are.
THORNBURGH: Do we know the precise time of the release (of radioactivity)?
HENDIRE: I doubt it with any precision . . .
THORNBURGH: Do we have any assurances that there is not going to be any more of these releases?
HENDIRE: No, and that's a particularly important aspect . . . As best I can jedge from the kind of information coming through from the plant, it is not clear that they won't get into this kind of situation again . . .
(The information gap continued to nag everyone. Metropolitan Edison Co. was controlling the flow of information and events, and NRC people were increasingly frustrated. Among those complaining was Roger Mattson, who called in from Pennsylvania.)
MATTSON: There is a problem incidentally in tracing the damned things to the back panel and they can't find them. So there are people busy doing other things and they are not getting it done . . . We just learned - I don't know - three hours ago, that on the afternoon of the first day, some 10 hours into the transient, there was a 28-poung containment pressure spike. We are guessing that may have been a hydrogen explosion. They, for some reason, never reported it here until this morning. That woudl have given us a clue hours ago . . .
(Mattson later talked about the escape of radiation from the plant that morning. He was concerned about the effects on nearby residents.)
MATTSON: The latest burst didn't hurt many people. I'm not sure why you are not moving people. Got to say it. I have been saying it down here. I don't know what we are protecting at this point. I think we ought to be moving people . . .
KENNEDY: How far out?
HENDIRE: How far out?
MATTSON: I would get them down-wind, and unfortunately the wind is still meandering, but at these dose levels that is probably not bad brecause it is (unaudible).
KENNEDY: But downwind how far?
MATTSON: I might add, you aren't going to kill any people out to 10 miles. There aren't that many people and these people have been - they have had two days to get ready and prepare . . . It'a too little information too late unfortunately, and it is the same way every partial core meltdown has gone. People haven't believed the instrumentation as they went along. It took us until midnight last night to convince anybody that those goddamn temperature measurements meant something . . .
(As the day wore on, concern grew about the need for evacuating pregnant women and young children. By afternoon Denton was in Pennsylvania. He reported by phone that the situation was tense but stable.)
DENTON: Hello, Mr. Chairman.
HENDIRE: Hi there.
DENTON: Quite an experience.
HENDIRE: Well, I didn't tell you about this when we made you director of that office, Harold. Actually, I though I was going to let you know later this summer, actually. How's it going?
DENTON: I think it's going all right - the communications are just frightfully inadequate because of the crunch, but they spent an hour working on this line . . . So I would say the situation is stable, I don't see any immediately threat theres. We've got our own people fanned out to really get up in each one of these areas . . . My concern . . . might help warrent a forced evacuation, but the precautions they have taken are preety reasonable . . .
(Throughout the Friday session there was concern about what was being reported in the press, who would speak for the NRC and what, when a spokesman was chosen, he would say. Jody Powell was involved in telephone talks with Hendric about coordinating press reseases. This exchange followed one conversation with Powell. )
HENDRIE: He says watch out. He's right. There will be a tape from Harold in the back yard at Three Mile Island and a tape of the dumb chairman answering the same question insufficient (sic) and they will pick out the divergencies even though they may not be matters of substance . . . .
(Gerald Rafshoon of the White House staff wanted an NRC official to appear on the McNeil-Lehrer public television news show that night. Gilinsky was chosen, but he canceled not long before air time. The TV producers were upset and the commissioners talked about that. )
HENDRIE: Yeah, But still it's awful cold thing.
KENNEDY: Tough. Well, the life of newsmen. That's why they drink so much. They're always losing their stories just before they file them. . . .
(The McNeil-Lehrnr show didn't get its way, but the commercial networks were leading the evening news with the story of Three Mile Island. The commissioners were keeping a wary eye on the tube ).
KENNEDY: It is the lead story at all networks succeeded only by the ship that is burning in St. Thomas, where people are really going to get hurt.
HENDRIE: There's a ship burning in St. Thomas?
KENNEDY: A cruise ship.
HENDRIE: Holy mackerel, I was thinking about taking a cruise this winter, when I decided I wasn't going to ski. Good thing that never got off, isn't it?
KENNEDY: By ship nothing is riskless.
(Alarm bells were set off at the meeting when commissioners learned that United Press International carried a story speculating that there could be a reactor core meltdown-and very severe public safety consequences - if things worsened at the island. It bothered the White House, too, which called Fouchard in Pennsylvania. )
FOUCHARD: Jody Powell just called and said something about some story on meltdown.
HENDRIE: Yeah-we had a UPI condensation of a briefing given in the press room at Bethesda.
FOUCHARD: Goddammit. . . .
HENDRIE: Now. When I talked to Jody Powell a little bit ago we were concerned about having press conferences there at the site and then up here and people comparing tapes. . . .
FOUCHARD: Harold just talked very briefly with reporters here because there was no way we could hide him.
HENDRIE: Yeah. . . . Well alrighty, listern I think Fouchard ought to call Jody Powell and report in on these public information developments. . . .
(There was more talk-lengthy talk-about the details and precision of an NRC press release. The commissioners took turns editing each other, and Hendrie read a final version to Powell. But the UPI story on a meltdown possibility continued to nag. )
HENDRIE: . . . We are, however, having to deal with this media report that's going running from the UPI report and so on about meltdown being imminent and we are putting together, by the way, a press release that says no, there's not an imminent danger of a meltdown.
GOSSICK: Yeah, I had a call from the White House situation room on that. I told them what had happened, that our guy had been taken out of context and misquoted.
HENDRIE: Yeah. . . .
Saturday, March 31
Early in this session, which began at 10:27 a.m., the commissioners were still discussing the possible need to evacuate the area around Three Mile Island. Though later in the day they would receive more reassuring news from Harrisburg, at this point they were still quite uncertain what they should do, as this excerpt shows.
GILINSKY: Look, what about-where do we stand on this question of whether people ought to be advised to move out or not?
I guess even though the situation looks better to me today than it did yesterday, I wonder if well, oughtn't we think about at least urging people who are real close in, they don't have to around here now to, if they've got relatives 20 miles away, to go visit them.
KENNEDY: Given what we know today as contrasted with what we knew yesterday, let's say, in comparison of law, what would be the rationale for it?
GILINSKY: Well, you see the way it looks to me is that, in a number of ways the situation looks better. I mean, the temperatures in the reactor in these hot sports seem to be going down and that's better, and they seem to be developing all sorts of backups to pumps in other parts of the system and that's better, and we've got a lot of talent on the spot that can think things through and they're organized and that's much better.
KENNEDY: And they're making-taking steps to minimize the effect of any subsequent release which might have to be evacuated.
GILINSKY: Yeah. Right. So that's another-
KENNEDY: Is that better?
GILINSKY: -that's another point on the plus side.
On the minus side is, they still don't have a way of dealing with this major hydrogen problem in the pressure vessel and, even though things are better, you know, there's still a possibility of the system degrading and, if it does, the time scales over which things might happen seem rather shorter to me-if I understand them correctly-that I understood them to be yesterday.
KENNEDY: That's something we need to-
GILINSKY: Check, sure.
KENNEDY: -we need to check out.
CHAIRMAN HENDRIE: Yeah.
GILINSKY: So I guess in my mind, I guess I view it as whether it's worth buying a certain amount of protection for limited dislocations, Limited economic costs and terms, and costs of other kinds involved when you start moving people.
And I-you know, I'm sort of thinking-if I had a friend in Harrisburg, I guess I'd-I don't think I'd tell him to move, I'd tell him to keep close to his radio, something, if you had somebody really close in, you might tell him, if he didn't have to stick around, why maybe he oughtn't to be there.
These are the people who would have the least time. You know, if you really got into a situation that was bad, people further out would have more time. You also would have a more specific evacuation. In other words, you wouldn't be doing it in a circle. And I guess I just don't think the situation calls for going beyond that.
On the other hand, it seems to me, it might be prudent to move them. And, I don't know. I'm also thinking in my mind, if the guy's got cows he's got to feed, I guess I'd probably tell him to stay there and feed his cows. But I think I'd go beyond women and-pregnant women and children.
KENNEKE: The farmer doesn't need to think about where he's going to get the feed to give the cows.
GILINSKY: Yeah. So it's not a simple answer to this, and I'm raising it for your consideration, you know . . .
KENNEDY: Yeah, But don't you-if you're going to take that kind of a step-don't you have to be more direct about it? I mean, you can't sort of-the agency to whom they would look for advice-you can't sort of toss it out and say well, you know, golly, maybe-
GILINSKY: Well, I-
KENNEDY: You goota say-say something fairly clear, a fairly clear indication of what you're saying to them. You can't leave it ambiguous.
Tuesday, April 3
By this point the damaged power plant was in a relatively stable condition. The question was whether to drift along that way, or take new potentially risky steps to bring the reactor to what the expers call "cold shutdown."
Among other things, these passages give a hint of the complex relationship between the NRC and industry representatives on the scene.
DENTON: And what I think is the missing role and the one Dick and Roger were earlier trying to simulate, now is - Let's get out of this flabby mode [inaudible], and let's seriously consider ways and pros and cons for getting this thing down. Because I don't think DeCamp [a company official] has any perception of the federal, state and social costs that are going on. He would probably be just as happy to stay in this mode for the next six months - you know, "don't touch a thing."
You know, "We know what we're doing now, why move?" And it's not a bad posture to be in if the whole social system could stand it.
CHAIRMAN HENDIRE: Well, I got the notion that GPU is still in a bit of shock - a state of shock, in a sense.
DENTON: Well, I will be meeting with them. I hope then to get my own operation here focused the same way. I think Roger and I can start thinking about where we want to be tomorrow, rather than blasting off at every latest item of something wrong.
COMMISSIONER BRADFORD. What are you looking at now in terms of the worst things that could go wrong, and the warning times you'd have on them?
DENTON: Well, my concerns are considerably alleviated since we've come to a view regarding the hydrogen . . . . .
BRADFORD: Do you have an estimate as to the least amount of warning time you think you'd get?
DENTON: I think it's very long now . . .
I guess what I need a feel from you on is: How critical is the need to show progress now? The whole-many of the-technical staff, I am sure, would take the view that, "why rock the boat?" We can sit right here and next week the core power level will be 5 megawatts. You know, that's a - and why make any changes in the stable system so that you might have a prime release, or some problem would develop or something happen?
[Simultaneous conversations. ]
BRADFORD: That sounds good to me.
COMMISSIONER AHEARNE: You've got to [inaudible] explanation to the public in that area. Three quarters of a million people sitting on the edge of their chairs, intense.
DENTON: But obviously, if you were here and locked out the place has charged dramatically since we got here, you know, with the visitors centers, and there were five trailers, and now there are ten, and there are tents, and communications J - they're even putting out a newspaper. The state is on readiness alert, and their resources are thin. So there is high social and political cost in maintaining this kind of-this steady condition. I don't know-I guess I don't have a feel for how destructive this is for the whole governmental process.
HENDRIE: I think what I'd like to-
DENTON: I think I will have to overcome the resistance of the staff you know, to make any change. Obviously, there are a lot of views that just maintaining it right now, don't change a single temperature pressure or anything in the system, let's just hold it.
AHEARNE: That's an issue we're going to have to discuss. . . . CAPTION: Chart, Nuclear Drama Participants