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Dick Thornburgh on: Day Three
Dick Thornburgh Q: Talk about Friday.

RT: I went to work Friday morning, as I said, mildly concerned over this problem of core damage, intent upon getting some answers on that. I had no sooner gotten settled in my office than I learned that a Doc Collins from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had recommended that we undertake an evacuation. I didn't know who Doc Collins was. Furthermore, I didn't know what the basis for that recommendation was. From about 45 minutes in my office, with all of our team assembled, we set about on a crash effort to determine what had prompted this evacuation recommendation out of Washington, D.C. And we initially determined that we weren't gonna follow that recommendation 'til we knew what was going on. Here's what happened. Very interesting, again kind of coincidence of acts. There had been a release of gases from the site, unauthorized, but, nonetheless, not of great consequence, early in the morning on Friday, the third day. And at the very same time, as luck would have it, a helicopter was over the plant taking readings of radiation. And with this blast of emission from the plant, they picked up some very high readings, 1200 millirems, which, if taken off-site, would have been catastrophic, but understandable given the fact that it was concentrated right out of the plant, due to this unauthorized release. Somehow, as a result of what I was later to call a "garble gap," this information was transposed in transmission to Washington. At the NRC in Washington they got the impression that this was, indeed, a reading taken off-site. And that prompted Mr. Collins to contact not me, the person who was responsible for any action on evacuations, but the emergency management people in our administration, who, in turn, before advising me, contacted the local emergency management people, who, in turn, with no advice to me, contacted a local radio station and the radio station put out a report that an evacuation was imminent, that I would be issuing an order for an evacuation. All of this happened before I even heard a thing. So we had to do a number of things. In the course of this examination, Tom Gerusky, our expert on radiation, unraveled the mystery very quickly. We knew exactly what had happened. I commandeered the air waves and went on live to tell people that there was to be no evacuation order, that the report had been mistaken. But by this time people were literally piling things into cars and trucks and cabs and getting ready to -- an uncontrolled evacuation of the area. I got onto the phone line directly with Chairman Hendrie of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and, in effect, sayin', "What's goin' on down there?" "What's up?" And he, by that time, somewhat sheepishly acknowledged that they had figured out this mistake that had been made and, indeed, acknowledged the evacuation order was not proper and rescinded it.

Q: How much does the NRC at this point really know about what's going on inside the plant?

RT: To say that I was disappointed with the NRC's actions on Friday morning would be an understatement. Clearly, we were looking to every possible source of expertise to help us thread our way through a very difficult decision-making process. We had already been let down by the utility. We felt we'd been let down by some of the federal officials on-site. Now we felt that we had lost some confidence in the NRC. That prompted us finally to talk to President Carter about our need to have someone on-site to whom we could look for authoritative information on an ongoing basis and spare us this matter of trying to cross-examine and triangulate among competing sources of information. To his eternal credit, in my eyes, he provided us with Harold Denton, the Director of Nuclear Regulation within the NRC, who was just what the doctor ordered.

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