An Open Conflict Over Authority
By Saturday morning the two central institutions in the Three Mile Island crisis, the corporation and the federal agency charged with regulating it, were drawing into open conflict with each other. The corporation was Metropolitan Edison; the federal watchman was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
It was a familiar adversary drama and the press, with clamoring insistence, poked and probed at the widening public contradictions between the two sets of briefing officials.
At 11 a.m. Met Ed president Walter M. Creitz held what he announced to be the last press conference the utility would hold. His tone was terse and subdued. Only a few in the room knew that the White House had decreed that the NRC would assume the role of public explainer for the balance of the crisis period. In effect the company had been told to shut up by the administration, which held full licensing powers over the plant.
The transfer of responsibility for telling the Three Mile Island story to the public was made at back-to-back press conferences, first by Metropolitan Edison and then a separately scheduled session by Harold R. Denton, the NRC's chief for reactor safety.
Met Ed's Creitz turned the floor over to John Herbein, a vice president of the utility, who told the conference that the deadly gas bubble in the reactor had dropped in size Friday night from 1,000 to 800 cubic feet. The NRC publicly disagreed, saying there had been no significant shrinkage.
Reporters, openly skeptical of Met Ed reassurances that everything was under control, now battered Herbein with questions. They extracted from him the information that the company's engineers had to abandon their efforts to shrink the bubble for 2 1/2 hours for fear of a hydrogen gas explosion.
Herbein nonetheless insisted that "I personally think the crisis is over."
At his own press conference an hour later, Denton contradicted Herbein openly. The crisis would not be over, he said, until the reactor was in a state of cold shutdown. One problem Herbein failed to mention was that inside the reactor the oxygen level in the bubble was climbing, thereby heightening danger of a gas explosion.
Herbein retreated from his earlier prediction that cold shutdown would be achieved within a day. Now, he acknowledged, it would be a matter of days.
"We attempted to tell the president and the country to the best of our ability what we thought was happening," said the utility executive. "This is the first time, I guess, that anything of this magnitude has happened."
Denton, in a later interview, described in sympathetic terms the plight of Met Ed when he arrived to take over, at Washington's direction.
"I was dealing with absolute chaos," he said. "They (Met Ed) were fighting fires. They were trying to cope with all the demands being placed on them and they didn't have enough staff to turn to."
"I was concerned that they were so thin technically at that time, that I couldn't find anyone who would give me the kind of information I would have expected," Denton said. "And I was getting more hard facts from my staff in terms of analysis and potential seriousness than I could get out of them."
As the NRC officials who were arriving at the scene in greater numbers began taking a more direct role, however, Metropolitan Edison rebelled.
During one angry encounter with Denton, Metropolitan Edison officials threatened to pull all of their operators and technical personnel out of the Three Mile Island plant and dump the whole mess into the NRC's lap. The company retreated from its threat.
But by the end of the week, while NRC officials continued to pay lip service to the notion that Metropolitan Edison was making the decisions subject to their approval it was clear who was really calling the shots.
"Since I'm the director of the office of nuclear reactors, I can issue, modify or suspend licenses," Denton said repeatedly through the days. "So I never had any doubt that if I didn't like the way they were running it, I could issue an order on the spot."
Meanwhile, in Washington, NRC Chairman Joseph Hendrie was issuing grim news. Residents of the central Pennsylvania area around Three Mile Island ought to be prepared to evacuate from a downwind swatch of up to 20 miles. Since no one would know which way the wind would blow, it was the farthest-out evacuation warning yet and stretched the perimeter for evacuation to cover 630,000 persons.
Just before 8:30 p.m. came the final straw. Associated Press sent out an urgent story warning that the bubble situation and become extremely dangerous. In fact, the story warned, the unnamed experts were warning that the bubble might explode at any minute.
Denton, on his way to brief Gov. Richard Thornburgh at the Capitol, was hastily taken before the skeptical and by-now panicky press in the Capitol to assure them that the situation was not that critical.
© Copyright 1979 The Washington Post Company