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Memories Come Back As NEI Staffer Returns To Three Mile Island

Insight Web Extra

Thomas Kauffman, an NEI senior media relations manager, was working at Three Mile Island on the day of the accident. He recently returned as an NEI representative for a media day marking the 30th anniversary. These are his thoughts:

March 2009—There was a moment of déjà vu as I drove the final mile on Route 441 from Middletown to Three Mile Island. The road, the houses, and the Susquehanna River looked almost exactly as they had the thousands of times I traveled that way to work at TMI, including the day of the accident on March 28, 1979.

The Press at TMI

On that day, when I arrived for my 7a.m. shift as a plant systems operator, I could tell the TMI-2 plant was shut down, because only a little vapor was coming from the top of its cooling towers. I vividly recall the reply of the security officer who was patting me down when I asked him why the station emergency alarm was sounding, “Oh they’re having some problem down there in Unit Two.”
Today, 30 years later, things are very different. Clouds of vapor are billowing from the Unit One cooling towers as I make my way to the TMI Training Center to meet Ralph DeSantis, Exelon’s TMI Communications Manager. There I would be NEI’s spokesperson for the TMI-2 30th anniversary media day.

This also was a bit of déjà vu. Ralph was at TMI 30 years ago too, and we worked together for 11 years in the plant communications department. I left TMI in 2000. Ralph, however, has remained at TMI for more than three decades, and people refer to him as “an institution” at the site.
Most of the media presence was local, though there were a couple of national and international news teams: Ralph likes to give the local outlets first dibs when possible. He knows they have a different perspective—they live in the area, and some of them covered the accident. To them, it’s personal.  

We met in the TMI training center for a briefing. I had chosen the topic of my presentation about a week earlier, after speaking with the editor of the Press & Journal in Middletown, Pa. ”Tom,” he said, “you have new workers coming into the nuclear industry who were born after the accident. They have no memories of it. How do you know the lessons of the accident will carry over to them? How do you know that the lessons of the accident won’t be forgotten altogether?”

It was a good question. Those of us who were in the industry at the time certainly won’t forget the lessons we learned, but what about new workers? What about 30 years from now or 100 years from now?
There is, of course, a very good answer to the question. The lessons learned from the accident at Three Mile Island will not be forgotten because they are permanently ingrained in the industry’s training, procedures, regulations—and the culture of its work force. The accident profoundly and forever changed how the industry operates and maintains the plants and where it focuses its attention. The focus is on safety.

The accident also forever changed the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “The TMI-2 accident had the greatest impact on nuclear generation of any single event in history,” the agency said in a recent news release.

“The public’s memories of the TMI accident will certainly fade over time,” I told the editor, “but as long as nuclear plants operate in the United States, the people who operate, maintain and regulate them will always be mindful of their responsibility to stay vigilant and focused on safety.”

There is abundant evidence to support this. At the media event, we showed slides of the industry’s sustained excellent performance, high output and capacity factors, low industrial accident rates, steadily decreasing radiation exposure levels, steadily increasing public support, the best regulatory performance ever, shorter refueling outages, and the list goes on.

What really capped it was when Ralph pointed to TMI Unit One’s four world records for continuous operation, and noted that in 2008 it was rated among the top 20 plants in the world.

Ralph and I also sought to reassure the reporters that the industry is not overconfident and will never take safety for granted. “Of course, people can still make mistakes and equipment can still malfunction even with the layer upon layer of safety that exists at the plants today. The industry knows it must remain vigilant and will not let its guard down. It does not intend to allow history to repeat itself. Safety is, and will continue to be, our highest priority,” I said.

After the briefing, we went into the Unit One control room simulator for a demonstration. I believe the tour of this state-of-the-art training room was a valuable experience for the media to gain a better understanding of the training, expertise and safety consciousness of the control room personnel. (See photo above for the scene in the simulator.)

We then gathered in the parking lot on the island where the reactors are situated. Ralph led the group on foot through the labyrinth of security barriers to a point where they could shoot some video of the cooling towers and containment building and do some interviews. The site security personnel keeping a close watch on our activities certainly made an impression on the media. The armed guards, razor wire, vehicle barriers, observation towers and other security devices made it abundantly clear the plant is very, very serious about security.

Last stop was the technical support center. Here the reporters were briefed on emergency preparedness, the many improvements since the accident, and the high-tech communications, monitoring and response capabilities that are at the ready all day, every day.

Commenting on the commitment of site personnel to protecting the public and preventing another incident, Ralph said, "We come to work every day dedicated to the fact it will never happen again."

In the photo: TMI communications manager Ralph DeSantis (center background) and John Schork (right) talk to reporters at the TMI control room simulator.

—Read more articles in Nuclear Energy Insight and Insight Web Extra.