The current mayor of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania who reflects on the impact of the 1979 Three Mile Island accident.
Q: Were you convinced from the beginning that the industry made some very big mistakes regarding the [Three Mile Island] accident?
A: I actually had some strong views about the industry, even before the accident. I was a member of the State House of Representatives, representing the district that covered the City of Harrisburg. And a little more than a year before the accident, had introduced state legislation that would require, among other things, that the state government have a role in setting safety standards with regard to the design of the facility, particularly with regard to the control room, with regard to training of personnel, and with regard to establishing practiced emergency management plans in the event of a major nuclear power incident. That legislation went nowhere. It was very actively opposed, not only by the business community in general, and obviously a component of that being the electric industry, but was very actively opposed by the labor unions, particularly the construction trade unions. And I took a lot of flack about it.
A year later, in fact, the accident that everybody said could never happen in an American nuclear power plant, because of our safety features and design and training, did indeed happen. And what became crystal clear within hours, within the first day of the accident, was that there was an absolutely orchestrated and initially effective effort by the then ownership company to minimize this event and to lie about its seriousness. And as a matter of fact, the NRC, in the wake of the 1979 accident, levied what was at that time it's the largest fine that it could levy on the company, because of their deliberate misinformation.
Q: How serious do you believe the incident was?
A: It was very serious. We didn't know it at the time, although there were some strong suspicions about it, coming from both within the nuclear power establishment and by experts who were independent of the nuclear power establishment, that the plant had gotten close to a meltdown. As it turns out, it came within 30 to 60 minutes of a meltdown, that would have caused a very significant release of radioactive material into the atmosphere, far beyond what in fact was released.
Q: You mentioned a little bit earlier that you felt officials lied at one point.
A: Well, they did.
Q: Do you feel there was more radiation released than admitted?
A: We do. And the truth is, nobody knows how much was emitted. There were eight different stack monitors in place (a typical feature of nuclear power plants at the time), which would measure up to but not beyond 1,000 rems. Now, not millirems, but rems. That's a significant amount of radiation. Those eight stack monitors reached the 1,000 rem measuring point and stayed there for hours. So how much more than 1,000 rems was being emitted, no one knows. I mean, the truth is, no one knows. And nobody will never know. It's one of these unanswered questions that will probably be forever debated, particularly by those who feel that they suffered ill health effects as a result of the accident. But there's never been a conclusive determination of how much was emitted, and never a conclusive determination of what impact, if any, the release of radioactive material had on human health. There's a lot of people who think it had an impact, but there's never been any direct causal relationship established in a court of law.
Q: Do you believe that there's a direct causal relationship?
A: I don't think there's any question that we know today that people react differently. I mean, there is no set norm. Minor radiation may not affect you; it could affect me. People react in different ways, and there may be underlying other factors which would make somebody perhaps more susceptible to a negative impact, or ultimately cancerous impact from exposure even to modest levels of radiation. The jury's still out on that, both literally and scientifically. We just don't know. I personally think that it had some impact on human health. I can't prove that, so I have to be careful.
Q: What do you think was the biggest mistake made during the time of the accident by the industry?
A: The initial effort to lie about it and cover it up, because that increased the anxiety level of the public very significantly. I'll never forget the then lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania. His name was William Scranton III. Just in office. He and the governor had been in office only three months. Taken office in January. This event occurred in March. And when the initial report came that there was something unfolding at TMI, [it] didn't catch anybody's real attention. But the lieutenant governor, who in our state is in charge of the emergency management system in the state, was duly contacted. Spoke to the company. Company downplayed it to the point where he did not think that there was anything particularly significant taking place, and said so publicly.
In a matter of several hours, the radiological folks in the state's Department of Environmental Protection began telling him, "There is something far more serious taking place at that plant. We don't know what." He went back on television and said that the company has not been as forthcoming in this matter as we had hoped, and the matter is, in fact, a bit more serious than was initially thought. That sent a shock wave. I mean, that got everyone's attention. Governor got into the picture at that point, and had to take charge.
And the event unfolded very quickly thereafter. And NRC came up here. Herb Denton was here, and a variety of others that became very common fixtures on our TV screens and the nation's TV screens at the time. And it became clear that there in fact had been a breakdown of the plant, a variety of errors that seemingly couldn't occur but indeed had occurred--pressure building in the containment building.
Significant anxiety. It was the fear of the unknown, and the fact that people began to understand from the very beginning that some of this information was being withheld and was only coming out in dribs and dribbles. And people voted on the matter with their feet. They got into their cars and they left. I mean, there was a mass exodus from this area. The highways leading away from this area in all directions was bumper to bumper, even though no mandatory evacuation was ordered.
Q: Do you think, had you been mayor at the time, you would have done anything differently?
A: Well, in a matter of this magnitude, and with the plant not being within our boundaries, we're limited. I think that I would have taken more protective actions than what were ordered at the time. I think our governor, Dick Thornburgh, did a pretty good job in this matter. Only in office three months, but I think he handled it well. The simple truth emerged that at that time there was no emergency management plan in place to order and safely conduct a mass out-migration of people from even the ten-mile radius area, let alone areas beyond the ten-mile radius. And to have ordered a mass evacuation without knowing whether it was absolutely necessary would have, in and of itself, created casualties, and may have added to panic or hysteria that would have done as much damage as anything the plant was going to do or had already done. And so that's the primary reason why the mass evacuation was never itself ordered. Moreover, it was felt that, to the extent that there was going to be exposure to the population of radioactive particulate matter, that that had already occurred, which was true. And it already happened. So I mean, you'd be asking people who are already potentially irradiated to now leave the area, which means that they take that contamination with them.
Nobody was prepared to handle an incident of this nature. It was a pivotal moment in nuclear power history, because of several things. Number one, it showed the extraordinary lack of sufficient planning in terms of emergency management at all American nuclear power plants, including the one here. And it also sent a shock wave through the industry, such that there's never been a new nuclear power plant built in this country since. It's a direct consequence of TMI.
Q: Are you doing anything to develop other sources of electric power in the area?
A: The fact that you haven't had any more nuclear power plants being built in the United States has directly contributed to this country's continued exceptional reliance on foreign fuel sources. I mean, if you want to know the consequence of that, check out the Persian Gulf War. We sent 500,000 plus military personnel and civilians from the United States Armed Forces to make sure that Saddam Hussein did not gain control and become the bully dictator of the foreign fuel supply that we and others depend on from the Middle East. I mean, that's what that conflict was all about. It wasn't just because Iraq invaded Kuwait. We're talking about oil rich countries. We could not afford to have Saddam Hussein calling the shots on that energy source. These are all directly associated with what occurred with TMI in 1979, because it ended the construction of nuclear power plants. And so we are dependent on other fuel sources.
What we've done in Harrisburg (and we're a small city, in comparison to the size of other American cities) is develop alternative revenue sources. For example, we collect trash through regular sanitation route collection efforts. We burn that trash. We also burn other communities' trash at our waste-to-energy facility. Through the incineration process, we mix the heat from incineration with super heated water. And from that, we produce steam, which is not exactly a new idea. It's been going on for 150 years. Some of that steam is sold for use to heat homes and buildings, through the district heating system that's in place. And some of that steam is used to spin the turbines in our co-generation plant, from which we produce electricity. And we sell that to the local power company, and they use it to light buildings and homes. Literally, some of the electricity being used on the lights in this interview are coming from the City of Harrisburg's burning of trash.
In addition to the burning of the trash and the generation of steam and the co-generation of electricity which are used in homes and businesses in the area, across the street at our advanced waste water treatment plant, we serve seven municipalities. We've devised several technological innovations such that we burn the methane gas which is a natural byproduct of the anaerobic digestion of sludge, which is also a byproduct of waste water treatment. Most plants in the country vent the methane gas into the air. You can't miss it when you're around, because it smells. We burn it and create electrical energy from that, sell it to the local power company, and that goes to light up homes and business. We recapture the heat from that burning process, to heat our buildings in the winter months. So that reduces our use of other fuels and energies.
In addition to that, we devised new technology that accelerates the way in which you can process sludge. I know this doesn't sound like an exciting subject, but if you want to talk about alternative energy sources, this is how you do it, particularly at the municipal level ... as sludge is processed, as it is digested anaerobically, it gives off methane gas. We burn it, create electricity from that. Goes into the power grid in this area.
Now, that doesn't sound like a lot, but we've generated now over 350 million kilowatts of electrical energy. We've produced over eight billion pounds of steam. We've saved over 350 million gallons of foreign fuel oil. We've saved over seven million cubic yards of land fill space. And I mean, we're a small city. If you apply that across the country, particularly in the more urbanized areas of the country, where you can do these things on some scale and make money doing it. I mean, we make money doing these things.
We also have advanced a plan to construct a low rise hydroelectric dam on the Susquehanna River, here at Harrisburg. That has not exactly inspired unanimous acclaim. Some of our environmental groups are opposed to that for what turns out, in our opinion, to be some fairly bogus reasons. But it raises the policy question, if it's impossible to create a project that produces hydroelectric energy, which is probably our cleanest source of energy, other than maybe solar power or wind power, if it's so difficult to do hydro, then you're assuring our dependence as a country on foreign fuel sources, on ravaging the land by using coal, which produces lots of sulfur dioxide released to the air, and you're assuring the restart of constructing additional nuclear power plants in the United States, because that's where our energy will have to come from if we don't have these alternative sources.
Q: Could you explain to me, as if I knew nothing about that, how your new monitoring network is going to work?
A: Well, one of the issues in 1979, before and after the accident was, in the event of routine operations or an accident, small accident, major accidents, what is the amount of irradiated material or particulate matter that comes from that plant, and where does it go? Well, nobody ever knows the answer to those questions, because there are insufficient monitoring stations off-site to measure those things. There's plenty of monitoring stations on-site at nuclear power plants. You can tell all you want to know about what's going on in a plant. It's outside the plant, the general public areas that need the monitoring.
And what this is, is an independent monitoring system, meaning it is not tied to the control room of Three Mile Island. These are separate monitoring stations, using the latest state-of-the-art technology, that will measure ambient levels of radiation in the air, in locations in all directions, outside of Three Mile Island. And they will come into a central receiving station. You can read each individual station, or you can read it all, en masse, at the central receiving station. And that will be based here. We're the largest emergency management operation, both inside and outside of the ten-mile radius area, other that the state's statewide emergency operation center. We volunteered to have that station located here.
In the event of a major incident that would require evacuation in the ten-mile radius area, you can't have your receiving station in the middle of that, because you're going to have to leave it, in the event of an evacuation. We are unlikely to evacuate here at this Harrisburg EOC (Emergency Operation Center), because we are outside the ten-mile radius area. This is where the information would be received. It's not only used to monitor normal operations of the plant. It would be used to receive accurate real-time data (emphasis on "real-time data"), so that you know exactly what impact, if any, there is on not only public health but animal life at nearby farms, and on plant life and so on.
Q: Do you feel safe now?
A: Yes. Yes, I do. Not just my own personal safety. Who cares about that? If there was a concern for safety, if we believed that the plant today was unsafe, we would move heaven and earth to have it closed. But the TMI accident has had a profound effect on the American nuclear power industry. They have, in many ways, cleaned up their act. Doesn't make them perfect. But they are far further along in proper design, proper operations, training, security, and on-site and even off-site monitoring than even far beyond what existed in 1979. And not just here, but all across the country.
Q: I have read, and I'm sure you've heard about this as well, that about two-thirds of radiation comes from radon in people's homes. And this area in particular.
A: Yeah, a lot of limestone.
Q: Right. About four times the national average. Skeptics say that if one really cared about low level radiation, they wouldn't concentrate so much on nuclear power but on radon and other sources. How would you respond to that?
A: Well, that raises a legitimate point in my mind, although there have been some recent studies announced, indicating that radon does not have nearly the amount of effect on the human body, in terms of being a source of cancer and other ailments, than what was previously thought. So we get conflicting information on that. We live in an area with lots of limestone, and we live in an area that has the full four seasons of the year. So our homes, particularly newer homes, tend to be more insulated and closed up than, particularly in wintertime, than homes in, say, Florida. So here, to the extent there's an adverse effect by radon, it will be more felt, because people are insulating themselves better in homes, and that means the radon gets trapped in the house.
There are some tried and proven ways to allow radon to escape safely, with relatively minor interaction with the occupants of buildings. You do it through drilling through the cement pad in the basement, or providing pipes that take the radon out. You provide a means for the radon to safely exit the house. The technology for that is commonly available.
Q: Do you think that the radiation one receives from these natural sources is different or affects the body differently than that which you receive from a nuclear power plant?
A: I suspect there may be some variation in terms of potential impact, by the different types of radiation and the sources of that radiation. But I think the body of scientific evidence suggests that large continuous exposure or large-dose exposure of the human body and tissue to radiation is not a good thing, and can have and has had dire health consequences.
Q: I want to talk a little bit about public perception. Do you think people are too frightened of radioactivity, or they're not concerned enough?
A: I believe that most people, because they don't understand radiation, would have a fear of it. And we certainly found in 1979 that it was the fear of the unknown that raised the anxiety level and triggered a mass exodus by tens of thousands of people during the Three Mile Island accident. I think, to a large extent, radiation and matters related to nuclear power continue to be largely an unknown subject with most citizens. Most citizens would have no need to know that kind of information. But I don't think most people pay a lot of attention to it, either. I mean, they have no reason to. So I guess you get a bit of the "I don't care" and "I don't know a lot about it."
Q: Do you think we can ever manage it?
A: Nuclear power? Oh, I think we can. And to some extent, we do now. The real question facing the nuclear power industry today is, how do you do build and operate such plants cheaply? Nobody's figured that out. You may remember that when this was all touted as America's latest wave of new energy source in the 1950s, that it was supposed to be a cheap power supply. It is anything but. It's the most expensive source of power that we have.
The greatest difficulty facing the nuclear power industry is, how do you get rid of the radioactive waste? We haven't figured that out yet. That is an issue that is not inconsequential, given the radioactive self life of the materials that's coming out of nuclear power plants: 25,000, 50,000 years and beyond. I mean, we have no known means of properly disposing of such material. That will affect hundreds of generations in the future.
Q: Do you think that if someone in the industry said they found a safe way to store this waste, would you feel comfortable with that?
A: No. I would like to have some independent verification of that. When someone's personal or corporate financial interest is at stake, and they set forth a bold new announcement that the following issues have been satisfactorily resolved and there are no public health or other concerns that need now to be addressed, they've all been satisfactorily settled, I'd like independent verification of those kinds of things. It's most likely because of the Three Mile Island accident here. We're in Pennsylvania, but we have a Missouri mentality: Show me.
Q: Recently, Judge Rambo threw out the class action suit.
A: Well, keep in mind, there had been settlements out of court, sealed settlements on quite a number of cases prior to that.
Q: Why do you think she did this?
A: I think the judge in the Middle District Court of Pennsylvania threw out the remaining cases because there simply is not a body of scientific evidence to conclusively prove that a potential exposure in 1979 led to precisely the following ill health effects in citizen X. There just isn't that body of evidence. And one of the reasons why there's not that body of evidence is because we have never done, even in the wake of the 1979 accident, have never done--with the cooperation of the nuclear power industry--a large scale health effects follow-up. It takes 10 years, 15 years, 25 years before some of those ill effects can and will show up. There has never been such a long-term analysis done. We simply don't have the body of scientific evidence to prove those kinds of cases in court.
And unfortunately, even in the wake of the 1979 accident, despite proposals to set up such a long-term health study, which was actively opposed by the industry I might add, the government ultimately decided, and particularly the NRC, it would be unnecessary. A very specious and suspect decision then, which denies us the body of evidence that we need today to answer these kinds of health questions, not just for the individual plaintiffs in cases involving the '79 TMI accident, but generally to answer public health questions about the impact of normal operations of nuclear power plants and exposure in the event of an incident that produces more than background radiation.
Q: Do you believe that any amount of radiation is harmful, then?
A: No. No. I mean, everybody's exposed to some level of radiation. You fly in an airplane, you get exposure to radiation. In many areas of the country, you get normal exposure to small levels of background radiation. There might be some people who are ill affected over a long period of time by exposure to minor amounts of radiation. Modest amounts of radiation have not been proven to be bad for your health, and indeed have been used by the health professionals to solve health problems.
Q: So what do you think the future of nuclear power is, here in the U.S.? And again, do you think it should really be shut down?
A: Well, you can't shut it down unless you have alternative energy sources. In the United States, given our topography, given the current state of technology, we have more than sufficient alternative domestic energy sources to completely replace nuclear power. Generally, I would favor the decommissioning of existing nuclear power plants as their useful life would expire, and not replacing them with new nuclear power plants. That's not going to happen, because no [one] listens to mayors from small cities like Harrisburg. And I would actively pursue alternative, domestically based energy sources. We've done that in a very modest way, here. And if we can do it as a small city, imagine what you could accomplish on a much broader scale. You'd have to get the electric industry in on this, as being the developers of these alternative energy sources, because through regulatory processes, enactment of laws or enforcement of existing laws, the electric energy industry can frequently stop or stymie or make economically nonviable alternative energy sources, by simply refusing to buy the power, or being willing to buy the power only on a modest per-kilowatt basis, which makes it impossible for the project to pay for itself, and therefore it never happens. That's how they kill it. I think you need to get the electrical power industry in as one of the developers of these alternate energy sources. And when you do, I think that we'll have them. And I think there will be even less reliance in the future on nuclear power.
Q: What do you think the chances are of another Three Mile Island accident?
A: I do not think it's impossible to have another Three Mile Island type accident at some nuclear power plant. There are a couple of problem nuclear power plants now in the country, and including some that are at or very near major fault lines in the west, that would therefore be potentially subject to catastrophic damage in the event of an earthquake in excess of 7.2 or 7.5 on the Richter scale. So there are some problem plants.
I think there will be future incidents, perhaps not on the scale of what occurred in 1979 at Three Mile Island. Nobody can guarantee that a nuclear power plant accident will not occur. I think the probability of one is less today than it was 10 or 15 years ago. And you have Three Mile Island to thank for that. If it hadn't been Three Mile Island, I suspect that you would have eventually, by now, have had some major incident at least some other plant, because we did not have in place the safety features, the design features, the training, and the emergency management planning. All those things came about in the wake of Three Mile Island. So in that sense, it improved the industry's so-called fail-safe systems. But nobody, no human-made system can be guaranteed to be foolproof.
Q: So you think eventually nuclear power will be phased out?
A: What I think will happen is that as current facilities decommission, that there will be very quietly (in fact, it's already happening), a buildup of pressure on the NRC and the United States government in general, to permit the replacement of existing nuclear power plants with new nuclear power plants. And I think that between the year 2000 and 2005, you will have the startup of construction of new nuclear power plants in the United States, ostensibly to replace those that are being lost.