Very early in the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, an engineer from the company that built the power plant told officials the reactor had been dangerously exposed, but nobody followed up on it, according to interview transcripts released by the president's commission investigating the accident.
The transcripts also show that commision interviewers made only the most perfunctory attempts either to verify the assertion of enineer John H. Flint of the Babcock & Wilcox Co., or to find out why nobody paid any attention to him.
Loss of water in the reactor core caused the radioactive fuel to overheat and its protective cladding to become damaged. Flint told the commision he had figured that out within 90 minutes of his arrival in the control room on the morning of March 28, or about 10 a.m.
The incident had begun at 4 a.m. but it was not until well into the following day that technicians at the plant generally agreed that the core had been uncovered and that the incident was very serious.
Flint told interviewer Winthrop Rockwell, a commission attorney, that he had made his conclusion on the basic of core temperature readings that had gone off the top of the scale, readings he had made on his own initiative. He then, he said, "mentioned it" to his B&W superior, Leland Rogers, who went to discuss it with two operators employed by the Metropolitan Edison Co., which owns Three Mile Island. Flint said he also told two other Met Ed operators himself.
"What was their reaction?" Rockwell asked Flint.
"I would say surprised," Flint replaied.
"It was news to them?" Rockwell persisted.
"Yes," said Flint.
"It was news to Rogers, too, when you told him?" adked Rockwell.
"That is correct as far as I know," Flint answered.
But in subsequent interviews with Rogers and the four Met Ed operators, the Kemeny investigating commission's never asked directly about Flint's assertion. Instead they asked in general terms whether the five had known that first day that the core was uncovered.
"No one, to my knowledge, ever expressed that in the control room at all that day from any source," said William Zewe, who was the shift supervisor on duty when the accident occurred. "No one there that day ever conveyed to me either directly or indirectly that they felt the core had ever been uncovered.
Rogers, site operations manager for B&W, told Rockwell, "My own feelings during that day is that I did not really feel we had ever uncovered the core." Rockwell then asked, "Was anyone in the control room taking the position that the core was uncovered?"
"I will say not to my knowledge," Rogers replied.
Roger later was asked generally about his discussions with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials at the site, with whom he was B&W's official contact.
"The NRC was there and (we) discussed with each other on a person-to-person basic, not B&W to NRC, that's all," Rogers said. He indicated he was unsure of the names of the NRC people but that it was hard to talk to them. "When I gave him an answer he didn't know what it meant," Rogers said, without naming anyone.
The interviewer did not ask specifically what information Rogers had given the NRC. The question of information available to NRC officials has become a crucial one in the ongoing series of investigations into the accident. Upcoming reports by the president's commission and others are expected to critize NRC structure and procedures in this regard.
The other operators Flint said he or Rogers told about the core uncovering were supervisor Gary P. Miller, techinical training administrator Edward Frederick and technical suport supervisor George Kunder. Miller said, "All morning we discussed the core coverage (but) we didn't believe the core was uncovered." Kunder and Frederick said they didn't remember when they learned of the core condition.