Air Date: Week of March 26, 1999
"I think the best way to put it is that there were very poor communications at the time. We weren't able to get clear, accurate information out to the media and the public. ... And at that point the media went to other sources for their information." - Tom Kauffman
Host Steve Curwood talks with Tom Kaufman, a spokesperson for Three Mile Island operators General Public Utilities - Nuclear, about his reflections on the accident and how it affected the nuclear industry.
CURWOOD: With new procedures and safeguards, the odds of another accident at Three Mile Island are extremely low. And so far, only one of many medical studies has been able to point to any lasting health effects. But the credibility of the nuclear industry remains low. And many wonder if present science is good enough to detect the health effects of the kind of release of radioactivity that took place here 20 years ago. So there's still a lingering unease here about what happened.
(Air monitor motors)
KAUFMAN: Well, we're outside our visitor center, Three Mile Island visitor center, and what you're hearing are some continuous air monitors. These are part of our environmental monitoring program.
Tom Kauffman with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood inside the control room training simulator at Three Mile Island. The simulator is an exact replica of the working control room inside the plant, and is used to train operators in emergency procedures. (Photo: Terry FitzPatrick)
CURWOOD: Tom Kaufman is one of the people responsible for the image of safety and efficiency that the operators of Three Mile Island try to project today. And on this sunny but cold March afternoon, he's showing us one of several new mechanisms installed at the plant since the accident. Equipment like these air quality monitors, that transmit air radiation levels not just back to the technicians inside the plant, but also to the nearby county courthouse, so that the public can monitor the readings independently. Tom Kaufman has been with the general public utilities for more than 20 years. Today he's a media and community relations representative, but on March 28, 1979, Mr. Kaufman was an equipment operator at Three Mile Island. He arrived for work about 7 that morning. Alarms were already sounding. He was told there was a problem down at Unit 2, which in retrospect he says was the understatement of the day. Within hours, he and other workers were evacuated from the building. But Mr. Kaufman says he remained confident that everything would turn out all right.
KAUFMAN: The only time that I felt some apprehension was actually when I went home and was watching the television, and you were hearing about all these possible things that might happen. I found that interesting, that I would hear something, I'd call the control room and say hey, the media's saying that the plant can blow up.
CURWOOD: So the press really blew this thing up beyond what really happened here..
KAUFMAN: I won't go that far. I think the best way to put it is that there were very poor communications at the time. We weren't able to get clear, accurate information out to the media and the public. We lost our credibility as far as providing accurate information. And at that point the media went to other sources for their information. So it's just, the flow of information and communication at the time was very poor. And that led to problems on both sides.
CURWOOD: Do you think that nuclear power got an unfair, bad rap out of this?
KAUFMAN: One of the lessons learned as a result of the accident was that clearly the people who lived around Three Mile Island, and many others in our nation, didn't have a good understanding of our technology, what we were doing, and the relative risks. We've learned a lot since then. The nuclear industry in this country has greatly improved. It's safer, it's more efficient, more reliable than ever. Whether there will be growth in this industry, in this country in the future, remains to be seen. But it is growing elsewhere in the world, because there is confidence in the technology.
CURWOOD: Now, your company has settled with some, what, 300 plaintiffs, folks who sued fairly early on. I think the amount is $14 million. But your company now is fighting some 2,000 others who are still suing. Why settle with some and not the others?
KAUFMAN: The original suits that were filed, I believe were stress-related. The other lawsuits that are involved are alleged health effects related to the radiation that escaped the plant. So there is a definite difference between the 2 sets of lawsuits. And a Federal judge in Harrisburg dismissed all those cases due to a lack of evidence that any of the plaintiffs had been exposed to enough radiation to cause the health effects that they claimed. Those are currently in the Court of Appeals.
CURWOOD: Let me ask you about this. I understand that in March of 1998, you had an emergency drill here, inside the plant, that would have warranted, I understand, a general alarm. So why didn't your people, during this drill, recognize that the alarm should have been called? Some people would say, boy, we're worried about that, we don't think that they've learned their lesson here.
KAUFMAN: We have performed dozens of drills, graded drills, for the NRC, very well. In that particular case, we didn't perform very well, certainly not as well as we should have, and not as well as we wanted to. We took our eye off the ball, you might say. And we're not saying we're perfect. No one is. I think it's important that when you do make mistakes, it's your response to those mistakes. And our response to the drill that we did not perform well on was to take a long, hard look at why we didn't perform well. We increased our training. And we certainly did very well in the next drill, and we have since.
CURWOOD: Well, Tom Kaufman, thanks for taking this time with us today.
KAUFMAN: You're welcome.
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