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Thornburgh Shares Lessons From Three Mile Island Crisis Thornburgh Shares Lessons From Three Mile Island Crisis

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First Person

Thornburgh Shares Lessons From Three Mile Island Crisis

The governor who managed the United States' worst nuclear accident said he was 'dealing with an event which had never before happened.'


Former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh steered his state through a harrowing near-meltdown at a nuclear plant.(Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

“Value and learn from history,” former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh told the American Society of Mechanical Engineers last December, when he delivered a speech about what he learned from managing the most serious nuclear accident in the nation’s history. In that spirit, here are edited excerpts of his remarks:

The Three Mile Island accident occurred on March 28, 1979, when I had been in office as governor of Pennsylvania for 72 days. A relief valve failed to close at the reactor site [in Londonderry Township, Pa.] at 4 a.m. that Wednesday morning and produced the chilling prospect of a meltdown at the facility.


During the following five days our new administration tried to separate fact from fiction and to deal with “experts” (including those employed by the utility, which operated the reactor) who persisted in telling us either more than they knew or less than they knew, and with exaggerated or inaccurate news accounts. It was an arduous process—dealing with an event which had never before happened on the face of the earth—in the face of conflicting and, sometimes non-existent, advice.

Early on the third day following the accident, shift operators at TMI were alarmed by a buildup of steam pressure in a reactor valve. Without approval from anybody, they simply opened the valve and allowed the steam, along with a substantial amount of radioactive material, to escape into the atmosphere.

It so happened that, at that precise moment, a helicopter was taking radiation readings directly above the plant’s exhaust stack. Not surprisingly, they indicated a very high radiation exposure rate—certainly high enough to warrant an evacuation, if the readings had been taken in nearby Middletown, in Harrisburg. But coming directly out of the stack, where the materials immediately were dispersed, such a reading was no more significant than those taken on the previous two days of the crisis.


Unfortunately, in a classic manifestation of what I later was to call the “garble gap” between Harrisburg and Washington, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Washington-based management team decided to recommend that we immediately evacuate all residents within a five-mile radius of the plant. Even more unfortunately, the Emergency Management Director called a local civil-defense director, who called a local radio station with the news that an evacuation order from me might well be imminent. One problem:  I had yet to be informed of any of this.

When I finally connected with the NRC chairman, the NRC group withdrew that advisory and I immediately went on the radio to assure our people that the alarm was false. 

Following the accident, I tried to set down a number of lessons learned from my experience:

1. When an emergency does strike, a trusted “ad hocracy” may be far more useful than an entrenched or untested bureaucracy. A manager should not be afraid to scramble the organization chart as, in a familiar example, President Kennedy did during the Cuban missile crisis, when his own brother’s advice weighed more heavily with him than that of the secretary of State or the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


2. During an emergency, we must be ready to restrain those who may be “leaning forward in the trenches,” helmet, sirens, and all. We must be wary of what might be called “emergency macho”—the temptation to stay up all night and then brag about it. Anyone making life-or-death decisions for thousands of innocent people owes those people a mind that is clear.

3. Don’t try to manage an emergency away from the site. This does not mean, of course, that one must be on-site personally, but someone must be in charge there whose competence and judgment you trust.

4. Search for and evaluate the facts and their sources again and again, and communicate those facts truthfully and carefully to the people, remembering that credibility can be as fragile as it is crucial in the cauldron of a genuine public emergency.

5. Respect but do not depend on the news media. Throughout the Three Mile Island incident, we developed a considerable empathy for the more than 400 reporters from around the world who were assigned to cover this event. Not all of the reporting was reliable, however, and some was outrageously incorrect. For example, I was informed that a British news organization, in its attempt to convey the gravity of the situation, carried an item to the effect that “the governor’s wife, pregnant with their first child, has left the area.” In fact, my wife, already a mother of four, was not pregnant, and she stayed with me in Harrisburg during the entire episode.

6. Forget partisanship, for there is no Republican or Democratic way to manage a real emergency. In our stewardship of this most basic of all public trusts, we inevitably survive or suffer together, and not incidentally, so do the people we are elected to serve.

7. And finally, as that well-known American philosopher, Yogi Berra, once said: “It ain’t over ‘till it’s over.” Within the next year, we learned that no plan had been devised to fund the billion-dollar effort necessary to decontaminate the damaged reactor. I had no choice but to develop and push my own plan, funded by the utility, state, and federal governments and the nuclear industry. It finally accomplished the clean-up in August 1993—a full 14 years after the accident!

Of course, the effect of the accident on the nuclear power industry in America was devastating. But nothing is forever and we now see a renewed interest in expanding nuclear power. If this interest is to persist, a number of challenges must be faced. Our research and development capabilities in this field within both industry and our universities have lagged. In today’s volatile world, additional concerns must be faced about the threat of terrorism to nuclear facilities. In the final analysis, however, the single, biggest obstacle to realizing the full potential of a revitalized nuclear industry remains the unresolved question of spent fuel disposition. Some re-examination of reprocessing techniques utilized elsewhere will surely be in order. 

But dealing with the prospect of complex-systems failure—such as what occurred at Three Mile Island, or, more recently, in the offshore-drilling efforts in the Gulf of Mexico—must command equally serious consideration in this process as well.

Dick Thornburgh served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1979-87. He is now of counsel to K&L Gates.

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