A TRULY UNEXPECTED result came out of the Kemeny Commission's study of Three Mile Island. A group that set out to investigate a technology ended up talking about people. The Kemeny report reached two principal conclusions, neither of which concerned machine design, communications networks, backup systems or any of the other trappings of nuclear technology. In the commission's own words, "It became clear that the fundamental problems are people-related problems."
The conclusion stressed in the report is that the attitudes of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and of the nuclear Regulatory Commision and of the nuclear industry must undergo profound and fundamental change. The NBC retains too much of "the old promotional philosophy" of the Atomic Energy Commission it replaced, and the nuclear industry has shown itself in too many cases to be lax, poorly managed and not up to the demands of running nuclear power plants.
The other principal conclusion grew out of a second-by-second analysis of the Three Mile Island accident, which showed that the equipment worked quite well but the operators did not. Of the many factors that caused the operator errors, the commission singled out one: over the years there has been an almost total preoccupation with equipment and a corresponding failure to appreciate the role of the human being in the nuclear system. Attention was paid to "large break" failures of equipment that would happen very fast and have disastrous consequences. These accidents could not be affected by reactor operators.However, the commission found the much great probability of "small break" equipment failures, which would happen much more slowly and which could be influenced by operator action, to pose the greater danger. Because those responsible for nuclear safety had been "hypnotized by equipment," they ignored the human factor, and Three Mile Island merely illustrated the consequences.
Before the debate begins on the report's 44 recommendations, it should be said that in the short time allotted to it the Kemeny Commission did the job it was assigned and did it well. It wisely resisted strong pressures to reach a judgment on whether commercial nuclear power should be encouraged or terminated, rightly recognizing that this, as a much broader question involving economic, political, energy and environmental concerns, can only be decided as a matter of public policy. Unlike many previous presidential commissions, this one held itself together and preserved a remarkable degree of unanimity to the end. Its final report could serve as a model of the government report-writer's art: it is concise, clearly written, free of double talk or jargon and eminently readable.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for its main recommendation: that the way to solve the many problems the Kemeny study found in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission is to dismantle that agency and re-create it with a single administrator inside the executive branch. While no one can deny the paralysis that now grips the NRC, the Kemeny report failed to make a convincing case that the NRC's problems could not be resolved within its existing organization, thereby preserving the substantial advantages of continuity, independent status as a regulatory body and diversity of views and backgrounds provided by five-member commission.
All in all, the Kemeny report held up a yellow light for nuclear power. It looked at the facts without bias, and to its own surprise found equipment that worked better than expected and a human system that worked much, much worse. Human failings turned up "wherever we looked," but none of them could not be corrected if the right attitude prevailed among those who design, build, operate and regulate nuclear reactors. The needed changes are in most cases obvious and reasonably easy to carry out. The need for properly trained reactor operators, for example, is a major finding -- surely this is well within the capacity of our society to provide. What the report is trying to do, in the words of one commissioner, is to call out the system, as loudly as it can, "Shape up, shape up, shape up."