03.20.11

Lessons From Three Mile Island

There's no doubt Japan's disaster is already worse than Three Mile Island. Eve Conant talks to Tom Kauffman about working through the chaos and the problems facing U.S. nuclear plants.

Even before Tom Kauffman stepped inside the plant on the morning of March 28, 1979, he could tell something was wrong. The partial meltdown, caused by human error, marked Three Mile Island as America’s most infamous—and perhaps educational—nuclear accident.

Kauffman, now a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, the policy arm of the country’s nuclear industry, talks about why he stayed at the plant to help, how the accident changed America’s nuclear industry, and how Japan’s unfolding nuclear crisis compares.

What happened when you got to work that morning?

I was completing my second year of training as plant systems operator—which is basically the eyes, ears, and hands of the control room. I came to work at 6:30 a.m., which was already a few hours after the accident and could tell something was wrong. Vapor plumes from the tower were smaller, and inside, alarms were sounding. I went into the control room, lights were flashing and people were hustling but there was no panic, no fear, people were concentrating completely on their jobs.

They didn’t seem scared?

No. But they were very… frosty, that’s how I’d put it. They were in the moment and focused on their jobs. I caught the eye of a reactor operator and he dispatched me to assist with radiological controls—which means I would monitor workers going into and out of the affected area. We called our first location checkpoint Alpha, and when radiation levels rose we retreated to checkpoint Beta, and then all way back into the control room with checkpoint Charlie. By evening they had reestablished cooling to the reactor.

Are workers at nuclear plants expected to stay at their posts even if radiation is high?

You have a choice, you have free will. No one is forced to stay, whether you are a union worker or management. We stayed of our own free will because we had a job to do, a personal and professional obligation to stay.

“Japan’s nuclear crisis is definitely far more severe than Three Mile Island.”

Did you ever think about going home?

No. I didn’t feel fear. We were well informed, and because of that we could stay focused.

Are there any similarities to what’s happening in Japan?

As soon as it started with us, help began rolling in. That was an advantage Japan does not have. Our infrastructure around the plant—the roads, electricity—had not been damaged, we had truckloads of supplies coming in. And the effects of the accident were confined to the reactor, there was no structural damage. Japan’s nuclear crisis is definitely far more severe than Three Mile Island.

Three Mile Island was a result of human error, unlike Japan.

Anything that goes wrong at a plant is caused by human error. Japan, too: Why wasn’t it prepared for the tsunami? The plant was prepared for the quake and responded well but not for a tsunami of that magnitude; why was it underestimated? Three Mile Island became one of the most studied accidents in our history. This crisis will also be studied extensively, but not yet, we’re still in an emergency.

Part of the problem with Japan, it appears, is conflicting information coming from the plant.

At Three Mile Island, word had gotten out that day, the media showed up that afternoon, and the plant management held a presser and tried to play down the severity of the accident. But reporters had already talked to workers and knew it was more serious than they were letting on. You have to give the full facts or you lose people’s trust, that’s what happened with us. The press conference did not end well. But the accident changed so much, from how we operate plants to training, to our very culture, everything. It was a sea change to the industry. It made it crystal clear that safety has to be the No. 1 priority and that communications and transparency are key.

Are there lessons from Three Mile Island the Japanese had not acted on?

It’s not fair to give an answer on that yet. They are facing far more severe conditions, their communications and electricity have been ripped apart. It wouldn’t be fair to be critical of them at this point, we have to wait until things are under control. Here in the U.S. we are right now verifying that every nuclear site, we have 104 power plants, is fully capable of handling a severe adverse event. Industry-wide we are double checking everything, including a plant’s ability to handle a total loss of electrical power. Japan’s problems may not end up having many technological applications here, but we must be conservative.

What are U.S. nuclear plants protected against?

They all have seismic protectors. Each plant when it’s built is designed to take into account the maximum ground movement for the area, and then to go well beyond it. They’ve looked at the plants in California and they could have handled what Fukushima faced, including the tsunami. Each region is different, though, and plants are designed for their areas. If a tsunami hits a plant in central Pennsylvania, for example, we’ve got a problem. In the East Coast the threat of tsunami is low, but there are hurricanes and tornadoes, in the North there could be flooding if a plant is near a river. But every plant is custom built and designed to protect from a long list of problems: earthquakes, fire, airliner impact, flood, tornado, hurricane, blizzard, lightning, dust storms, high temperatures, low temperatures. There is no kind of industrial facility in the country that can withstand more than a nuclear power plant.

Is there any chance the situation can improve in Japan, or can it only worsen given the current stage of damage to the reactors?

I don’t know. We’re still in the midst of an emergency so I can’t speculate at this point.

Eve Conant is a Newsweek staff reporter covering immigration, politics, social and culture issues.