Tracing the Implications of Things

            Some lessons to be learned from this story

Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, 1979

If uncertainty dominated the disaster at Seveso, it is fair to say that confusion reigned at Three Mile Island.  A series of technological glitches and human misjudgments set the disaster in motion.  A routine maintenance procedure inadvertently let water go where it should not have gone.  A valve should have closed but it remained open.  A broken control light camouflaged the buildup of heat in the system.  Based on the belief that the control light was accurate, operators took actions that only worsened the problem.  When the instrumentation started to reveal the actual conditions unfolding in the core, operators simply refused to believe what their instruments were telling them.  Imaging what was going on inside the core, if the instruments were accurate, was too frightening.

When it could no longer be denied that something dangerous was happening, even if the operators did not know exactly what, emergencies were declared.  Unfortunately, the company tried to assure the public and the authorities that everything was safe, and that there had been no release of nuclear materials.  The inaccuracy of that assurance very quickly came to light, spreading the confusion from the plant operators to the public, and seriously undermining any credibility of the company’s representations.  To the extent that the authorities relied on the company’s representations, they too were smeared.  With no one to trust, the public was primed for panic.  Conflicting press coverage, with some stressing the most dire consequences and others downplaying events,  contributed to the confusion.

When the federal nuclear regulatory authorities arrived, they brought some assurance of accurate information and sound advice.  Unfortunately, that did not last.   Based on inaccurate, incomplete information from the site, even the federal nuclear regulatory authorities got it wrong.  The recommendation to evacuate everyone within ten miles was premature.  While the Pennsylvania governor reasonably transformed it into a recommendation to advise only certain vulnerable classes to evacuate from a five-mile radius, the more expansive evacuation plan was leaked.  Again it was difficult for the public to assess who to believe.  Most exercised the better part of discretion and got out.   Once it was decided to get out, and with little time to reflect, agonizing choices were made about what to take:  the most valuable things, the most sentimental things, the things that were needed if you never could return?  Being placed in such an impossible place was unnerving and infuriating.

After the immediate risks were removed, there remained the uncertainty about the long-term health effects from the exposure to the releases from TMI. Deep concerns about who to trust only exacerbated this uncertainty.  

In the post-disaster analysis, the mistakes and inaccurate information came to light, further fueling unease about who was trustworthy in the situation.  Ironically, while the evacuations that were recommended may have been premature, based on what was learned later, the conditions that prevailed at the very beginning, if they had been known, likely would have justified a wider evacuation.


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