Thursday, April 23, 2015

What we don't know makes it worse

Ionizing radiation.

Just looking at those words probably makes you squirm - especially if you can remember the Cold War. It is the force that powers large ships of war. It's the force behind the most destructive bombs ever devised by human minds. Heck, it's the stuff that's responsible for the Blob, giant mutant insects and Godzilla.

May I call you Mr. Zilla?
It's also the stuff that makes nuclear power plants run. And, that can have some very scary implications. We saw what could go wrong at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor after a major earthquake and tsunami. We saw it in the central Soviet Union at the Chernobyl reactor disaster. And, there were several other accidents that did cause injury or the release of radioactive materials through the years.

The Three Mile Island reactor in 1979
But, it was one incident that not only changed the course of the nuclear power industry, it also changed the way public information officers do their jobs forever. The Three Mile Island reactor incident which took place in 1979 set the bar on how confusing and bungled the response to an event could possibly be.

It started with a bad control board design that failed to indicate the proper position of a Pilot Operated Relief Valve, which allowed the reactor's coolant to leak out without the operators noticing. By the time a change of shift happened a few hours later, the reactor's core was exposed above the coolant, and the fuel rods began to melt. It was an event known as a loss of coolant accident.

A schematic of the reactor at the Three Mile Island generating plant

Now, understand that while the reactor's fuel was melting, it was also encased inside of a reactor vessel and a containment building, providing a significant amount of protection against a release of radioactive material (These important safety devices were missing in the Chernobyl reactor, making that accident much more serious). Plus, due to the type of fuel used in a nuclear plant, there is no chance of a nuclear explosion like an atomic bomb. It just can't happen.

Governor Thornburgh giving a a media briefing about the crisis
But, that wasn't communicated in the confusion as the event unfolded. Metropolitan Edison, the operator of the plant, was slow to provide information to Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh. The information released to the media was also contradictory - at one point, stating that radioactive gas had been released, then reversing position. Given this contradictory information, Governor Thornburgh said there was no danger, then ordered an evacuation of children and pregnant women from a five mile area - eventually expanding to a 20 mile radius.

Angry at the utility, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania turned to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for guidance.  While this did add subject matter experts to the incident, very little coordination between the agencies compounded the confusion.

The movie poster for the China Syndrome
It didn't help that a movie - the China Syndrome - about an act of sabotage that nearly caused a meltdown at a nuclear power plant had been released in theaters a mere 12 days before the accident happened. The fictionalized account spurred fears that the reactor vessel and containment building could be breached.

It wasn't until President Jimmy Carter, a former Navy nuclear technician who understood ionizing radiation and the level of threat, showed up on scene to tour the facility - and observe the operations in the control room - that the public began to breath a little more easily.

While the event fortunately didn't lead to a catastrophic loss of life, it did open the eyes of emergency managers to the importance of bringing public information officers into a disaster early on. In fact many of the tenants of the National Incident Management System were established in the months and years after this accident.

As far as the lessons public information lessons learned, you can read the after action report online... an interesting case study.

Tom Iovino, Public Relations Strategist
Hillsborough County, Florida

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