Just about all the experts agree that Three Mile Island (TMI) was not a serious accident. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t a serious screw-up. Things went wrong that should never go wrong. When they pumped the accident conditions through the Babcock and Wilcox (B&W) simulation of the TMI plant, they got a total core meltdown and a genuine catastrophe; fortunately, reality was more conservative than the B&W simulation. It’s a little like a drunk successfully crossing a highway blindfolded. In human health terms, nothing much happened at TMI, but awful things almost happened.
TMI was by no means the only near miss in the history of nuclear power. (The frequency of near misses and the infrequency of real disasters—Chernobyl being the only one we know about for sure—signifies that either nuclear power is an intolerably dangerous technology and we’re living on borrowed time, or that “defense in depth” works and a miss is as good as a mile.) But TMI was the only near miss that captivated public attention for weeks, is widely misremembered as a public health catastrophe, is still a potent symbol of nuclear risks, and, as a result, has had devastating repercussions for the nuclear power industry.
Pay Attention to Communications
What went wrong at TMI—really, really wrong? Communication. Communication professionals were minor players at TMI.
I asked Jack Herbein, the Metropolitan Edison (MetEd) engineering vice president who managed the accident, why he so consistently ignored the advice of his public relations (PR) specialist, Blaine Fabian. (Risk communication hadn’t been invented yet.) He told me, “PR isn’t a real field. It’s not like engineering. Anyone can do it.” That attitude, I think, cost MetEd and the nuclear power industry dearly. And that attitude continues to dominate the nuclear industry, contributing to one communication gaffe after another. Nuclear power proponents keep shooting themselves in the foot for lack of risk communication expertise. (This observation is obviously a little self-serving, as I sell risk communication training, but I think it’s also on target.) Although risk communication skills can be learned, they’re not bred in the bone—certainly not for the average nuclear engineer.