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Mike Gray on: The Lack of Communication in the Control Room
Mike Gray Q: Meanwhile in the control room, how is information going in and out?

MG: The leitmotif, if you will, of the whole accident at Three Mile Island was a failure to communicate -- from the failure of the NRC to communicate with the operators of the plant that this accident might happen, that it had already happened, and the failure of the phone system to function in this kind of a situation where they only had a limited number of phone lines. Now you have to remember this took place in an era prior to the cell phone. If cell phones had existed in 1979, it's conceivable that this accident might not have happened. But the problem was that there was no way for the people who designed the plant to get a line into the control room to get information and find out what was actually going on. There was only one group that actually had a direct line into the plant, and that was the insurance company. The insurance company heard about it first, they called first and they had a direct line to Three Mile Island throughout that whole accident. The designers of the plant down in Lynchburg could not get through under any circumstances. They had to relay all the information through a regional NRC office in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania to the Unit One, which is north of the accident, and then a runner would run over to Unit Two and read the gauge and run back and report this. At each step of the way, the people who are communicating this information are not necessarily control room operators. In other words, the information is being distorted as it goes from place to place to place. So the people down here are getting fourth-hand information, which is largely incorrect and certainly incomplete, and they're passing back advice which doesn't make it all the way. For a period of nearly -- well, almost a whole day -- it was virtually impossible for anybody who knew anything about the nature of the accident either to get a line out from the plant or to get a line into the plant so that these people could talk to each other and figure out what was going on.

What finally broke the impasse was, it turns out, that one of the key operators from Three Mile Island, a guy named Jim Floyd, happened to be training down in Lynchburg, Virginia, at the Babcock and Wilcox plant. He was having a refresher course. He was actually the top operator at this plant. He was one of the guys with the highest performance record and so forth. And, unfortunately, he happened not to be in Middletown that day. He was down in Lynchburg and the top executives at Babcock and Wilcox found out that this guy Floyd was on the premises. They had a runner get him -- bring him up into the board room. He walks into the board room. Here's all the top management waiting for this lowly plant operator to come and they've -- he's got the one piece of information they need most desperately. And that is the private line -- the telephone number into the control room. And Floyd is actually able to give 'em a secret phone number that they call and they connected, not with the control room, but with Unit One. And that at least shortened the loop of the communication. So they were able to get a runner back and forth and what they said was, "Turn on the emergency core cooling system, whatever else is going on. Open those pumps. Get high pressure injection started. Keep flow at 400 gallons a minute or else." And that message finally did get through. And certainly saved the day.

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