Most of the utility companies operating nuclear reactors around the nation probably would be no better equipped to handle a major nuclear accident than the operators of the Three Mile Island plant were, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said yesterday.
Referring to Metropolitan Edison Co., Commissioner John F. Ahearne said in an interview, "it's not yet clear to me that Med Ed is unusual in this station. An operating utility doesn't have the backup staff to look at the questions in an accident this severe."
Ahearne, who emphasized that his assessment of all aspects of the Pennsylvania accident was preliminary, because complete information is not yet available, also suggested that his own agency may be structurally unfit to deal with serious nuclear mishaps.
"one of the things you have to consider," Ahearne said, "is whether a collegial commission is the way to set up to deal with a crisis. In a crisis, where you have quick response required, it probably isn't."
Ahearne was addressing two of the questions raised after transcripts of tape recordings of the commission's closed-door meetings during the crisis were made public by a House committee last week.
The transcripts, which include discussions among the five commissioners and their converstions with NRC technical experts at the accident site, portray a deep distrust of the technical abilities of Metropolitan Edison, the firm the NRC had licensed to operate the reactor.
"The whole shop there is not that strong," NRC Chairman Joseph M. Hendrie tells colleagues at one point, "and the operating staff clearly is not."
In the transcript, NRC officials complain that the utility probably exacerbated the danger at the plant by not spotting warning signs as the accident was occurring, and then failed to come up with workable solutions to the problems the accident caused.
Ahearne said yesterday the company's performance does raise questions about NRC licensing procedures, but he was not ready to single out Metropolitan Edison as unusually weak on technical points.
"this was an extreme accident," Ahearne said. "Clearly one of the issues raised is how do you get access to all the technical expertise you need."
Overlooking the warning signs, Ahearne added, "may not be the licensee's fault. It may be that we didn't set up proper procedures to follow and they were correctly following bad procedures."
Of the transcripts' portrayal-men groping for answers to problems they had not anticipated-Ahearne said, "What you're seeing is people waiting to get the next piece of information, and just talking about things while they wait."
Although he was not critical of his colleagues, Ahearne said the incident did raise a "fundamental question" about the commission's ability to handle accidents.
"I don't think anyone will come away from this not worrying," he said.
Another commissioner, Victor Gilinsky, said he thought the agency-particularly technical experts dispatched to the damaged plant-did "very well" in handling the crisis, especially considering that "the whole thing involved a situation we had not anticipated having to deal with."
We had to improvise," Gilinsky said, "but we got a solution." Asked whether Three Mile Island left him concerned or confident about the NRC'S ability to handle future problems like it, Gilinsky said, "hopefully the next time will never come."
Like Ahearne, Gilinsky emphasized that a full assessment of the accident and the government response would have to await a detailed investigation.
Other NRC officials did not respond to requests for their assessments of the transcripts.
At Three Mile Island yesterday, the utility under close guidance from NRC officials, continued to move the plant slowly toward a stable status termed "cold shutdown."
Inside the reactor, "the temperature is holding at 250 degrees and pressure at 900 pounds," said Karl Abraham of the NRC, "and it looks like it's going to stay there for a while. It looks like that's where the reactor wants to go."
NRC officials said Friday it should take until mid-week to get the plant temperature down to about 200 degrees Fahrenheit, at which point the major cooling system can be restarted and the reactor brought down to its normal temperature.
Thereafter, however, it may take months for the high levels of radioactivity within the plant's concrete containment structure to dissipate. Hendrie told a congressional committee last week that eliminating the radioactivity and other clean-up operations will cost "at least tens of millions of dollars."
With the Three Mile Island plant out of operation, Metropolitan Edison is buying power from other utilities to make up the difference. This cost, several hundred thousand dollars daily, is being passed on automatically to its customers.
An insurance pool that has been compensating Pennsylvanians who fled homes within five miles of the reactor said that it has paid about $1 million, but that claims for lost wages, lost business, and anxiety have not yet been processed.