The first installment of this series, titled Sabotage may have started Three Mile Island accident, describes how a number of individually improbable equipment conditions came together at 4:00 am on March 28, 1979, one year — to the minute — after the start of commercial operation at Three Mile Island (TMI) unit 2. It also described how the NRC’s Rogovin Special Inquiry Group considered, but dismissed, the possibility of sabotage.
This topic has been discussed previously on Atomic Insights in the July 27, 2013 thread titled Was Three Mile Island an accident?. That initial discussion was based on a video clip in which Galen Winsor made a couple of thought-provoking statements about the event.
Winsor’s commentary was marred by the fact that he expanded his skepticism about the official interpretation to a completely unsupportable claim that the plant was not actually damaged and could have been restarted. There are too many eyewitnesses and videos that document the core conditions and the difficulty associated with devising tools to chip pieces out one by one to accept that wild claim.
Many who watched that video dismissed the whole notion based on the fact that part of the statement was obviously wrong. That is a perfectly understandable response when someone says something so wild that it destroys their credibility. However, there was enough confirmation of the possibility of malfeasance in the comment thread from some very credible people to stoke my interest.
Ever since that inconclusive discussion, I have been keeping my eyes and ears open for more clues that would either confirm or deny the possibility of sabotage.
About six months ago, I had a conversation with one of my colleagues at B&W. In 1979, he was working as a senior reactor operator at a plant that was the same design as TMI unit 2. He told me a story about being visited in the summer of 1979 at his facility by “several fit guys with short hair and JC Penney suits” who he assumed were from the FBI or another federal agency. Those investigators asked him questions about his plant’s secondary system, focusing on feedwater valves and valve position indications.
The line of questioning led him to believe that the investigators were trying to find out if anyone could have purposefully closed the EFW-12 valves without anyone noticing. He told me that he showed them at least one way to create exactly the conditions they were asking about. He also told me that the condition could have gone undetected for days at a time if the person took just a couple of actions that could be deduced by anyone with a reasonable level of system knowledge.
Later, I came across the following quote in F. William Engdahl’s A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order
On August 3, 1979 in its official report on the event, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission posed sabotage or criminal negligence as one of six possible causes for the Three-Mile Island event. But even after eliminating the other five possible causes, the government refused even to consider the possibility of sabotage seriously.
(Engdahl, F. William, A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order ProgressivePress.com 2012 Pg 210)
Aside: I found that one before I went to the web to look up the full version of the Rogovin Special Inquiry Group Report. End Aside.
Rogovin was not the only group tasked with investigating TMI. The Kemeny Commission, was a Presidentially appointed group that was charged with investigating the event, the licensees, the suppliers and the NRC. The Kemeny Commission report makes no mention of the possibility of sabotage. In fact, it avoids any discussion at all about the events that initiated the accident, it only mentions them as follows:
- The accident at Three Mile Island (TMI) occurred as a result of a series of human, institutional, and mechanical failures.
- Equipment failures initiated the events of March 28 and contributed to the failure of operating personnel (operators, engineers, and supervisors) to recognize the actual conditions of the plant.
It is worth taking a little diversion to learn more about the Kemeny Commission and why it showed little interest in the initial cause of the accident or in pursuing any suggestion that it might have been a result of sabotage.
In brief article published in the March 2004 issue of Nuclear News titled Memories of the Kemeny Commission, Ronald Eytchison provides important information about the makeup of the Commission and the perspective through which it investigated the accident. Incredible as it may sound, Eytchison wrote that President Carter did not pick any members with relevant nuclear engineering or plant operating experience. In fact, the initial Kemeny Commission did not include a single member with any nuclear training at all.
Eytchison attributes that odd personnel choice to a desire on the part of President Carter and the appointed leaders of his commission to avoid any hint of industry involvement in the investigation. They asserted that industry participation would taint the results and reduce their credibility. That attitude provides a hint about the widespread lack of trust in the nuclear industry, despite its impressive safety record before the event occurred.
About two weeks after the President selected the commission members, Dr. Kemeny realized that an accident at a nuclear plant could not be adequately investigated by a group made up of “lawyers, public affairs specialists, and NASA engineers.”
Kemeny turned to the Navy nuclear power program to obtain someone with credible operating experience who was not associated with the nuclear industry. Eytchison, then a Navy captain who was just finishing a three year tour as the senior member of the Atlantic Fleet Nuclear Propulsion Examining Board — sometimes called the NPEB, but also known to Navy operators as the ORSE (Operational Reactor Safeguards Exam) board — was ordered to join the group. After realizing the enormity of the task he had been asked to undertake, Eytchison requested assistance from others with operating experience. Dr. Kemeny “responded with a powerful, Hungarian-accented, ‘No!'”
After realizing that he would not get any experienced help and also knowing that the commission report had to be completed in within a strict, 6-month time frame, CAPT Eytchison pared down his area of interest to focus on personnel and training. Exposing his Navy nuclear prejudices, Eytchison was pretty sure at the start of his investigation that the commercial nuclear industry had weaknesses in “operator selection, training, qualification, and licensing”.
Aside: I make that statement after serving as a nuclear-trained Naval officer for nearly 30 years. That experience gave me personal insights regarding the assumptions that many in the program make about programs that are not the Navy nuclear power program. End Aside.
Eytchison decided early in his involvement that he would be providing corrective recommendations.
The Kemeny Commission’s nearly complete lack of an operational perspective is important. An operator or two would have been curious about why the event started in the first place. They would naturally want to identify specific actions that would minimize the possibility of that same sequence of events happening again.
It is also important to understand that the Kemeny Commission saw its primary task as something more than a specific incident investigation. The President had promised the public that his Commission “will make recommendations to enable us to prevent any future nuclear accidents.”
Aside: That statement, by itself, demonstrates the nuclear exceptionalism endemic in the Carter Administration. Can you imagine a President tasking a commission to investigate something like the Deepwater Horizon with making recommendations that would “prevent any future” oil well disaster? End Aside.
Reading through the Kemeny Commission report, it seems as if there was a general agreement that a nuclear plant accident was inevitable and that it did not matter how this particular one started.
That same feeling pervades numerous contemporary articles, books and commentaries. It seems like “everyone” expected something to happen; they were primed by the well-publicized “reactor safety” and Emergency Core Cooling System (ECCS) controversies. Frequent coverage of antinuclear protests and public hearings with skeptical questions about safety also indicate that there were plenty of people who were itching to be able to say “we told you so.”
TMI Event Sequence Similar To Early Event In The China Syndrome
Though I’ve been a nuke for many decades, I have avoided watching The China Syndrome. I never came across it on television at a convenient time and I did not want to buy or rent it because that would put money into the pockets of antinuclear activists. I know that’s a pretty immature attitude, but at least I admit it.
A couple of days ago, I overcame my reluctance in the name of research and purchased my own copy of The China Syndrome. I watched it immediately. I’ve seen short scenes from the movie hundreds of times, but never watched the whole movie from start to finish. The experience was eerie, especially so soon after having spent so much time delving into the details of the TMI accident.
There are an uncanny number of congruences between the movie and the actual event. It is not enough for people to remember that The China Syndrome was a thriller that includes a scene about a “nuclear accident” and that its theater opening preceded a nuclear accident by just a couple of weeks.
In case you have not seen the movie or saw it long enough ago that you have forgotten the details, let me explain why watching it provided the final motivation to create this serial story.
Early in The China Syndrome, the characters played by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas witness an event from the control room observation area at a 4 year-old, single unit, inland sited, 800 MWe nuclear power plant whose characteristics roughly match those of Rancho Seco, a sister plant of TMI unit 2.
The movie event — which the Douglas character insists on calling an accident, even though there was no core damage — is described as a turbine trip with a loss of feed water. The first indication in the control room is a shuddering floor that makes the water cooler and a cup of coffee shake. The horn blares frequently enough to distract the shift supervisor, and nearly every light on the expansive monitoring panels flashes, demanding attention.
During the event, there is a stuck open relief valve, a pressurizer level indication that pegs high, operator worries about going solid, operators that stop High Pressure Injection during the casualty, and a need to manipulate stop valves for the relief valves.
In other words, with all of the possible nuclear plant events that the writers could have picked, the fictional event was virtually identical, in initial stages, to the real event.
There’s one more bit of foreshadowing. In a later scene, while having a “scientist” explain the control room activities that Douglas had captured on film — without permission, by the way — the scientist provides a dire warning that the event could have “contaminated an area the size of Pennsylvania.” That same scene included a nuclear engineer named Greg Minor; that is the name of one of the GE Three antinuclear activist whistleblowers.
MBH Technical Associates, the consulting firm founded by “The GE Three” of Gregory Minor, Richard Hubbard and Dale Bridenbaugh, served as technical consultants for The China Syndrome. They did a credible job; the set included an almost perfect replica of a nuclear power plant control room, the turbine and auxiliary building scenes were frighteningly accurate, and the operators used realistic terminology.
At this point, the questions that come to mind are: Did life imitate art? Did someone decide that the best way to predict the future was to invent it? Did a disgruntled employee watch the movie and recognize an opportunity to get his concerns noticed? Did a New Jersey mobster decide to issue a warning about moving a plant out of his influence area?
There’s at least one more installment remaining.