The presidential commission that investigated the Three Mile Island accident urged President Carter yesterday to abolish the five-member Nuclear Regulatory Commission and create a new executive agency with a single administrator to police the nuclear power industry.
"At present, the NRC is a headless agency that lacks the direction and vitality needed to police the nuclear power industry on a day-to-day basis," said Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, one of the 12 members of the commission chaired by John G. Kemeny. "Safety decisions involving nuclear power are not appropriate to committees . . . running a debating society is not the way to run nuclear safety."
The most indepedent of four groups investigating Three Mile Island, the Kemeny Commission made 44 recommendations to President Carter to improve nuclear safety, the strongest being abolition of the NRC. It did not recommend any delay or halt to nuclear construction while its safety recommendations are being considered or implemented.
"The commission held exhaustive debate on several moratorium propsals and there was a feeling among some commissioners that we take a position recommending a nuclear construction delay," said commission member Harry C. McPherson, Washington lawyer and 1960s White House assistant to President Johnson. "But we were almost equally divided on this issue, and no moratorium proposal received the sufficient seven votes to make it a recommendation."
Initial reaction to the report was largely predictable -- industry spokesmen focusing on the overall go-ahead for their technology and industry critics complaining that the report did not go far enough. Two members of the NRC immediately opposed the idea of its abolition, while sentiment appeared to reawaken in Congress for another look at a moratorium on nuclear power plant construction.
McPherson went out of his way to defend the commission's inability to reach agreement on a construction moratorium, pointing out that only Congress has that authority anyway.
"What we have done is recommend that the NRC or its successor review every application for a construction permit or operating license," McPherson said, "to determine if the safety recommendations in this report have been fully considered."
In turning over to President Carter a report that ran 179 pages, Chairman Kemeny said that "while there were great doubts that we could reach a consensus on this, we achieved a remarkable degree of consensus." Kemeny said that 36 of the 44 recommendations were unanimous, that only a handful were made with abstentions, and that none had more than one vote against it.
"We recognize there were many things we did not do, that were not in our mandate," Kemeny said at an afternoon press conference. "For example, the energy policy of the United States, which will have to be decided in the political arena."
In accepting the Kemeny report at the White House, Carter said he would make no quick decisions on whether to adopt its recommendations and made no specific comment on the recommended end of the NRC.
"Our own assessment and our decisions on what to do cannot be made immediately," Carter said. "We'll have to be very careful and very methodical in our recommendations to the public."
Carter established the commission in April to investigate the March 28 accident at the Sysquehanna River plant that began when the reactor core overheated, causing an emergency that lasted more than a week. It was the country's worst civilian nuclear accident.
Besides urging abolition of the NRC, the Kemeny Commission, known formally as the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, also recommended that future nuclear power plants not be allowed anywhere near major population centers and not be given operating licenses until the states where they will operate adopt an emergency evacuation plan approved by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
"The psychological trauma suffered by people living near the Three Mile Island plant," McPherson said, "indicates that nuclear plants are not appropriate neighbors to urban areas." Commissioner Cora B. Marrett, professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, said of TMI, "Some of the planning for an evacuation was done in the middle of the accident. Before a utility is granted an operating license, the state must have an emergency response plan."
The 12-member commission openly criticized the owners and operators of the Three Mile Island plant, declaring that Pennsylvania's Metropolitan Edison Co. "did not have sufficient knowledge and was not sufficiently prepared" to deal with the accident.
"Its procedures for dealing with an accident were inadequate and, in some cases, hopelessly confusing," said Chairman Kemeny, who returns today to his position as president of Dartmouth College. "The control room where the accident was managed is greatly inadequate for managing an accident."
The commission pointed out that over 100 alarms went off in first minutes of the accident "with no way of suppressing the unimportant ones and identifying the important ones." So poor was the arrangement, the commission found, that key controls were on the back of the panel.
"There was almost a total ignoring," Kemeny said, "of the human element in the entire system,"
The commission also found that the accident was caused in part by a failure of the plant's operators to fully understand what happens in a nuclear accident. It recommended that operator training be institutionalized and that operator licenses be renewed every few years.
"Inadequate understanding of how the reactor behaved probably was a major contributor to the seriousness of the accident," said Commissioner Theodore B. Taylor, professor of nuclear physics at Princeton University. "That must be changed to make it reasonably sure that the level of understanding and knowledge is much greater than it is today."
While finding no serious physical health effects from the accident, the commission said state and federal response to a radiological emergency was woefully weak. It said the state was unable to advise hospitals and doctors and the federal government maintained no liaison to advise the state.
Pointing out that only a single drug (potassium iodide) is approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat radiation sickness, the commission recommended a broad federal program of radiation-effects research.
"This effort should be coordinated under the National Institutes of Health," the Kemeny report said, "including the commitment of a portion of the research budget to meet the specific needs of the restructured NRC."
Clearly, the Kemeny Commission concentrated on the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which it said is too thinly spread and directed to deal with nuclear safety.
"We find that the NRC is so preoccupied with the licensing of plants," the report said, "that it has not given primary consideration to overall safety issues."
Declaring that the five commissioners isolate themselves from the rest of the NRC, the panel said it found all the major offices of the NRC operating independently of each other. The commission said that warnings of impending trouble at Three Mile Island had been flashed to the NRC but "fell beetween the cracks" and never set off an alarm.
"ythe NRC is beset by an overconcentration on regulations, an attitude that tends to equate the meeting of regulations with safety," Chairman Kemeny said. "We find that's not the way to achieve safety. It is only the total dedication to safety that will assure the safety of nuclear power."
The Kemeny panel recommended reconstruction of the NRC along the lines of the Environmental Protection Agency, Federal Aviation Administration and Food and Drug Administration. It recommended a single administrator with power to move quickly. It suggested the president be given the authority to replace the administrator.
Finally, the Kemeny Commission put a pricetag on the cleanup at Three Mile Island that could go as high as $1.88 billion, five to six times what Metropolitan Edison has estimated. Most of this would be for replacement power. The commission placed the amount of radioactive contamination at TMI at a staggering 15 million curies, most of it in the water inside the concrete containment.