Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
Montage of images and link description. Meltdown at Three Mile Island Imagemap: linked to kids and home
The Film and More
Imagemap(text links below) of menu items
The American Experience
The Film & More


Interview Transcripts | Bibliography

William Scranton on: Day One
William Scranton Q: What memories stand out that first morning when you heard something was amiss at TMI?

WS: I have a ton of memories from that first day. The first one, obviously, was walking into my office at eight o'clock in the morning on Wednesday, and being told there was a telephone call saying that there was an incident at Three Mile Island, and that it had shut down and that beyond that we didn't know. And of course, a whole passel of images comes up in your mind because this had never happened before. You had read literature about what happens at nuclear power plants, but you're brand-new in the job. We'd only been in office for three months. Nobody quite knew what was happening. Was there a melt-down? Was there not? What could possibly happen? So for a good while, we were in a state of suspended animation. So that clearly is a very strong image. Another very strong image from the first day was giving my initial press conference in the morning --going down and finding out that everything I had said, the essence of what I had said, was wrong. What I had said in the morning was that this is what we know has happened, but there has been no significant off-site release. Only to find out moments later that, in fact, there had been an off-site release. I still haven't gotten over that.

There are allowable limits for radiation going -- I mean there's radiation all around us. There's radiation from your television set. There's radiation from your computer. There's radiation actually occurring in the ground. There is background radiation, which is a term we learned very quickly, "background radiation". And if you have a release, which clearly dissipates very rapidly, of a certain allowable amount, it doesn't become a problem. I mean, obviously, people don't like to know that somebody's venting that, but you have sulfur dioxide coming out of power plants. You have I mean all kinds of problems. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission and EPA, et cetera, had worked out what allowable releases are. And if you're not going to have a clear health threat, you don't want to panic people. So very quickly we tried to learn what those allowable limits were and discern whether there was danger of those limits being breached.

That first press conference that morning was a very interesting example of the problem that we had all along. I was scheduled to give my first official press conference that morning anyway, 'cause I was chairman of the Governors Energy Council and I was making a press conference with regard to energy policy. So I had booked the room and the press was expecting something. By the time my press conference time came, we knew that this was going to be the issue because the press knew something was up. And they didn't know any more than we. In fact, they knew considerably less. But the issue became, how long do you keep the press waiting so that you can gather more information? And all along our philosophy became we tell people as much as we know and what we don't know and be as frank and candid as possible because we are not technical experts, and none of the technical experts had the whole story. So we had to go and say, "This is what we know." And at ten, or whatever time, in the morning we had the press conference, what we knew is there had been an incident at Three Mile Island, that it was shut down, that there was water that had escaped but it was contained. And we were told there was no off-site release of gas. And we said, "This information came from the company." And that was the essence of the press conference.

Q: During that press conference, though, the truth began to emerge, right?

WS: Absolutely. The truth emerged as a result of telling what you know and people challenging it. And at that press conference, one of the people from DER who was there said there had been some detection of off-site radiation, I believe, on the ground, if I'm not mistaken. But nobody knew there'd been venting or there had been anything into the atmosphere. We were still trying -- "we" meaning the administration, meaning the people in the department of environmental resources and the people in Pennsylvania Emergency Management -- were still scrambling to find information. So, while we were telling it, others were scrambling to get it. So, I was in a sense like a news anchor while reporters were out there trying to gather the information. That's what happened initially anyway.

back to Interview Transcripts | next

Program Description | Enhanced Transcript | Reference