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Roger Mattson on: Recommending an Evacuation
Roger Mattson Q: Do you remember what prompted Harold Denton to recommend an evacuation Friday morning?

RM: I was in the main room of the emergency center at the time Mr. Denton made his recommendation for an evacuation on Friday morning. I came in a little bit afterwards and I came to understand that what the concern was in the emergency center was that there had been some puff releases, some short releases of radioactivity, from the waste gas treatment system in the auxiliary building. We also understood, whether it was right or wrong, that at the time this system had some mechanical difficulties. It had a safety relief valve that was not functioning properly and this valve would, from time to time, open and there would be repetition of such puff releases, and, in fact it might get to the point where the valve would stay open for longer periods of time. We were then saying, "Okay. If it can get worse, should we be making an evacuation recommendation now, before it gets worse, when it's possible to move people, where there's no radioactivity in the air? Or, should we wait until it actually gets worse and there is radioactivity in the air?" Then you have a problem because you're moving the people through the air or under the cloud of radioactivity. So there was a struggle of sorts going on between the early warning or later warning schools of thought and what was the right thing to do to protect the people in the vicinity of the plant.

Q: So what had you learned and what are you about to tell them?

RM: Well, what I told 'em was that we had a reactor that was in a condition that no one had anticipated, that the core was severely damaged. I think I called it a "horse race." "We have things that are moving in the right direction, which will help us control it. It's getting cooler. We have things that are moving in the wrong direction which could make it go out of control." The waste gas treatment system, we thought at the time, was going to continue to get worse. So I referred to a horse race and I said, "Joe, Hendrie, we have a horse race. We have a situation we haven't seen before and we don't know for sure where it's going to come out." And, at that point, I put my two cents worth in on the evacuation. I asked him why he was not making a recommendation to move people, that we thought that there should be some form of close-in evacuation.

Q: Did he evacuate?

RM: Well, they settled on an evacuation, I think, of pregnant women and children for the obvious reasons, for the iodine release. They're the most sensitive to such a release.

Q: Why not a general evacuation?

RM: It was not generally agreed that there was a need for such an evacuation, at that time on Friday morning. The forces for, "Wait and see what develops" won out over the forces for "Let's do it in advance of more severe developments." There was a struggle over whether to go with preliminary information as a precaution or to go with later information when we knew for sure whether there was a problem or not.

Q: But didn't a precautionary evacuation seem prudent? What's the reluctance?

RM: I think the thing that argues against an evacuation is the upsetting of people's lives, putting people on the highway in a stressful condition. You can anticipate that there are going to be some traffic accidents. Moving people from -- any infirmed people, people in hospitals or people in old age communities, -- there's a concern that the frail members of the community would be harmed by an evacuation. So ordering an evacuation is not something you do without a lot of thoughts. You have to have competing risks in order to justify making an evacuation.

Q: What's your instinct about this?

RM: Oh, I still think today we should have evacuated Friday morning, given the information that we had. We needn't have gone to the distances that some people thought, 10 miles, 20 miles were talked about at some points in the accident, but certainly a few miles away from the plant. Based on the information we had Friday morning, Denton made the right recommendation. I still think so today, and were we faced with that situation today, I think we'd probably want to do it again.

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