There is a good reason why life often imitates art in the form of fictional stories; good creative writing teachers emphasize the importance of research and a firm understanding of reality. Writers are taught — or learn on their own — that people prefer reading stories that are believable. Even fantasy or science fiction follows that general guidance. Authors take the time to provide enough details about the imagined technology and science of the created world so that the actions of the characters make sense within the constraints of the time and place the author has created.
Creative writers, especially those who spin mystery stories, also learn the importance of perspective or “point of view”. The lens of knowledge, experience, and task assignment through which one views any event, series of events, individual technology or even entire industries play a crucial role in the way stories are told or opinions are developed.
Events often look very different depending on who tells the story; that is why investigators need to interview so many different witnesses in order to gain a real understanding of how something happened.
During the nearly 35 years since March 28, 1979, one reason that almost no one has heard of the possibility that a saboteur chose to insert a specific series of faults at a specific time is because the published reports came from groups that were filled with people tasked to investigate an industrial plant death that came from either natural causes or suicide. None of the well known published reports came from a group tasked to consider all possible causes of industrial plant death, including murder.
Any aficionado of crime dramas knows that murderers generally get away with their crime if no one thinks to ask “homicide” to get involved in the investigation. Clues can disappear — or be “disappeared” by the criminal — if the crime scene investigators are not quickly called in.
Mystery story fans also know that there might be a star investigator who is able to piece together a series of random clues to figure out “whodunit”, but that investigator is generally a lot more effective when she has access to a team full of people with wide ranging specialities, including specific technical expertise relevant to the subject crime scene.
While most good writers work hard to get out of the way of their story — and I will take that tack after a brief detour — it is important for me to share information about my professional background so that you can understand a little more about the lens through which I have been putting together the various pieces of this puzzle. For good reasons, I’ll refrain from introducing any of the individuals that have been helping me develop a new understanding of the story, though some of them have made their contribution public in the comment sections of various posts on Atomic Insights.
In my younger days, I spent a little more than 6 years operating nuclear submarine steam propulsion plants with pressurized water reactors. That experience is fading into the distant past, but other people who have “been there and done that” know the clarity with which certain portions of such a formative experience can be recalled.
Though there are differences between the scale of submarine propulsion plants and the commercial reactor at TMI, the basic operational principles and many of the components are similar.
I was not just an operator with a particular technical specialty; during my first submarine assignment I served in a series of jobs, including Electrical Officer, Main Propulsion Assistant, and Chemistry and Radiological Controls officer. During my second assignment, which lasted for 40 months and included six patrols, three Operational Reactor Safeguards Exams (ORSEs) and one Extended Refit Period, I was the Engineer Officer.
There are few jobs in the entire nuclear enterprise that expose people to the number of plant maneuvers and transients that are observed by a submarine Engineer Officer preparing his crew to undergo an ORSE. On the USS Von Steuben, a missile submarine, the primary focus for the Engineering Department for three months was preparing for the ORSE.
I’m pretty sure that this was a general rule and is probably still in force today, but all four of the Commanding Officers that I served with during my submarine days required that the Engineer Officer be in the Maneuvering Room (the submarine version of the control room) throughout every casualty drill.
On boomers (missile carrying submarines) we usually could focus on ORSE preparations for an entire patrol; drill periods might have been despised by the crew, but they were a major time investment at least three days per week. The CO also strongly encouraged his Engineer to make his way to Maneuvering during any actual event, planned or unplanned.
At the time I served as Engineer, the Navy nuclear program was still operating under the Rickover-influenced policy of avoiding simulators. We trained people using operating power plants in as realistic a manner as possible.
Aside: The “no simulator” policy has changed with the introduction of the Fleet Interactive Display Equipment (FIDE) program. However, notice that the name of the program does not actually admit that it is a program designed to provide highly realistic control room simulators. Someone once told me that “the powers that be” chose that name in hopes that Rickover wouldn’t find out they were buying simulators and come back from the dead to haunt them. I think that person was spinning a tall tale. End Aside.
Another policy that was consistent among all of my COs was that the Engineer was responsible for writing or approving all drill scenarios, including creatively figuring out which parts needed to be simulated and which could be safely done with actual equipment and instruments. There’s probably fewer than two thousand people who have created more scenarios and actually inserted them into a plant.
For better or worse, I also carry the experience of investigating a few “incidents” and writing up the incident reports. Though the Navy nuclear power program has never had an event that could be classified as an “accident” — defined as something bad enough to actually cause core damage and a significant release of radioactive material — it has had its share of learning opportunities. After all, the Navy has operated a couple of hundred complex propulsion plants with tens of thousands of people during a period of 55 years. We’re good, but not perfect.
One constant in all of those investigations was a desire to find out the exact cause of the specific event so that we could take action to minimize the possibility of that event happening again. From what I have discovered about the Rogovin and Kemeny commissions, no one really cared exactly what happened; they were all operating under the assumption that an accident was “inevitable” and that major systematic changes were the only way to prevent something else from happening.
Some of the primary investigators harbored major personal doubts about the very existence of a nuclear energy industry.
That was never part of my mindset when investigating an incident. While my experience taught me that nuclear energy is almost magical, there is no reason to question its fundamental existence. We were also taught that it was a demanding technology, but that we were getting pretty good at using its capabilities but could always get better.
During most of my dozen or so assignments in the Navy, I worked closely with the same kind of people who operate and maintain commercial nuclear power plants. Unlike many officers, I grew up in a working-class family and really enjoyed getting to know most of the people I worked with on a first name basis. I have a pretty good idea what makes them tick and how many different ways they tick.
Perhaps that helps you understand the new set of eyes that have been looking at this particular cold case. Now that the file has been reopened, self-assigned investigators can begin asking the standard mystery questions, creating the evidence board, and evaluating potential suspects. As a reminder for those who are not well versed in the art, the standard mystery question is “Who has the motive, means, and opportunity to perpetrate the crime?”
Most of the suspects in any mystery fall off of the list because they lack one or more of the three primary attributes, but most investigators build their initial list by looking first at motive.
In ways not dissimilar from Murder on the Orient Express, the TMI sabotage suspect list gets surprisingly large once the investigator understands more about the people who disliked the victim virulently enough to commit a crime and be willing to risk going to jail if the crime was discovered.
In cold case investigations, it’s also important to take advantage of the perspective given by the passage of time. In this case, the distant perspective allows the realization that the targeted victim was not necessarily a single nuclear power plant, but the entire nuclear power industry.
As is often said by nuclear industry leaders today, “an accident anywhere is an accident everywhere.” The industry might not have recognized that truism at the time of TMI, but there were plenty of people who were already thinking with that perspective by March 1979.
By 1979, the worldwide antinuclear movement had been building strength for almost two decades. It grew out of some almost religiously passionate movements to stop the expansion of nuclear weapons and to halt the war in Vietnam. There were many in the movement who felt that stopping the growth of nuclear energy was important enough to become a crusade and to risk arrest and jail time.
To illustrate the truth of that statement, here is a quote from a page titled The Anti-Nuclear Direct Action Movement – Bay Area Radical History Project found with a search on “antinuclear direct action”.
In the wake of the Viet Nam War a mass grassroots anti-nuclear power and weapons movement rose up across the United States. Drawing on ecology, feminism, Civil Rights and anarchist organizing, people pioneered new practices and theories of social change organizing in the US: horizontal decentralized network organizing; affinity groups, clusters and spokescouncils; consensus decision-making and feminist process; skills trainings and shared leadership; jail solidarity and mass nonviolent direct action.
Richard Nixon had pledged to build 1000 nuclear power plants in the US by the year 2000. Massive grassroots organizing and mass direct action stopped the industry and kept nearly 880 US reactors unbuilt. Today, just over a hundred operate. No US reactor ordered since 1974 has been completed. Calling to “DECENTRALIZE POWER” the movement popularized ideas and practices of renewable, not-for-profit, locally controlled energy.
That page includes a list of valuable historical references. It’s worth a visit to The Abalone Alliance Story. The first few paragraphs on that page show the passion with which the antinuclear movement was actively attacking the industry.
The Abalone Alliance was started in May of 1977 when over 70 activists came together to setup the statewide Alliance. Within a year, the group had consensed (sic) on the wording of a Declaration of Nuclear Resistance. Its first action at Diablo Canyon took place on August 6th 1977 where 47 people were arrested at the gates. The following year, the number of those arrested jumped to 487 people.
The local affiliate of the Abalone Alliance was preparing to hold anti-nuclear rally in early April of 1979 when the Three Mile Island meltdown took place the just over a week before hand. Over 25,000 people showed up for the rally in San Francisco, helping to set off a huge response that culminated in the June 29th rally at SLO where nearly 50,000 people attended a rally and concert with then Governor Jerry Brown coming out publicly against nuclear power. Many AA activists were highly opposed to Brown’s “Grandstanding” at the rally.
The Alliance made a strategic decision not to hold another action at Diablo Canyon until the NRC granted PG&E a license, which hurt the movement energy. But even so, after the NRC illegally gave PG&E a license, the Alliance held what is to this day the largest act of civil disobedience in US history where nearly 1,900 arrests took place over a 20 day blockade at Diablo Canyon. Just as the blockade was coming to an end, a newly hired 25 year old engineer discovered that PG&E had built the seismic supports for the reactors backwards, resulting in a huge national scandal, that forced the NRC to pull the operating licenses.
So, tack a few photos of the antinuclear movement that predate TMI onto the bulletin board and move on to find other names or groups to add to the suspect list.
The following quote comes from a daily stock column. This particular issue, dated Saturday, March 31, 1979, was headlined “Nuclear Stocks Plunge: Accident Called Coal-Stock Aid”. It was written by Alexander R. Hammer and published in the market section of the New York Times.
Stocks of companies in the nuclear power field plunged sharply yesterday in heavy trading as the general market posted a moderate decline.
The selling pressure in the nuclear issues resulted from word of the release of more radiation yesterday from the leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa. that occurred Wednesday. Among the issues hard-hit was J. Ray McDermott, which fell 1 7/8 to 19 1/8. the issue was the third-most-heavily traded. The company’s Babcock & Wilcox unit built the Three Mile Island plant.
Another big loser among companies that produce fuel and machinery for nuclear plants was Westinghouse Electric. It was the most actively traded stock on a turnover of 1.18 million shares and dropped 1 3/4 to 18 5/8. The biggest loser was Kerr-McGee,down 4 1/8 to 51 in heavy trading. Combustion Engineering lost 1 7/8 to 38 1/8.
General Public Utilities, the holding company that owns the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, was off 5/8 to 16 1/4 before the company requested a trading halt pending clarification of the situation at the plant. The stock did not reopen for trading. On Thursday the issue eased 5/8 point.
Mr. Shimmerlick [Warren Shimmerlick, energy specialist of L. F. Rothschild Unterberg Towbin] added that the accident at Three Mile Island, regardless of how serious it might prove, “seriously hurts the prospects for growth in the nuclear industry.”
Those stock market moves in response to a well-publicized event at a nuclear power plant were predictable given the coverage that had been given to the antinuclear movement and to the efforts of groups like the Union of Concerned Scientists to highlight questions about nuclear reactor safety. Wall Street is populated by often amoral traders that make their living capitalizing on stock movements, both up and down.
Fortunes are always available to those who can place well timed bets on the “short” side of a trade, but short-selling can be a risky and costly strategy for a trader that just has a general sense that something bad will happen sometime in the future. Performing forensic accounting more than 30 years after an event is impossible, but that does not remove the possibility that a short seller decided to make a timely bet and then take action to ensure that it would be successful.
Short sellers were not the only people with a financial motive for sabotaging the growth of the nuclear energy industry. Starting in 1970, less than 30 years after the basic physical process of the fission chain reaction was discovered, nuclear power plants started producing enough electricity to begin taking market share away from coal, oil and natural gas.
The people whose capital was invested in equipment, property, and technology whose value depends on profits from the sale and use of combustible fuels had many reasons to see nuclear energy as a formidable rival and even an existential threat to their continued business. The fossil fuel energy business is, after all, highly leveraged and depends on continued sales at sufficiently high prices to provide the ability to pay back long term loans.
Here is a quote from a July 6, 1971 New York Times article titled Nation’s Energy Crisis: It Won’t Go Away Soon. That article was the first installment of a three part, front page series that ran on July 6, 7, and 8 in 1971.
Americans are demanding more and more energy — more petroleum to turn the wheels of transportation, more oil, natural gas and coal to fire the boilers of electric utilities, more fuels and electricity for heat in the winter, air-conditioning in the summer and the year round operations of industry. In the last 15 years, total consumption doubled, in the next 15 years, it is expected to double again.
But Americans are also demanding a quality environment. Appalled at ugly strip mines, oil slicks from tanker spills and leaky offshore wells, denuded corridors of land for transmission lines, sulphur oxides and fly ash from power plants and the specter, real or imagined, of radioactive perils from nuclear centers, they are resisting the construction of precisely those new facilities that are essential to the production of more power.
In the last few years, moreover, numerous technical breakdowns at power plants and miscalculations by both utilities managers and Federal officials have, under the most charitable interpretation, made an inevitable crisis worse.
Now, when thoughtful people close to the issue talk about solutions, they almost unanimously fall back on nuclear energy as the only satisfactory way to accommodate society’s needs and keep the traditional energy distribution system intact.
Going back to that March 31, 1979 daily stock market report, the accident at TMI was a gift to fossil fuel rivals. It resulted in a significant “uptick” in the perceived future profitability of the coal industry in general and specific companies in particular.
Coal Seen as Beneficiary
Warren Shimmerlik, energy specialist of L. F. Rothschild Unterberg Towbin, commented that nuclear-related stocks might remain under pressure for some time. He said that the real beneficiaries would be the coal stocks, “since coal doesn’t compete as much with oil as it does with nuclear energy in the electric power industry.”
Gains by Coal Issues
The coal issues did well. Eastern Gas and Fuel was up 1 1/2 to 19 1/4, while Pittston added 1 to 22 1/2. In the over-the-counter market, Westmoreland climbed 3 to 33 bid.
That result is important enough and predictable enough to add fossil fuel interests — which is admittedly a very large pool of people — to the suspect list.
As described in the Mike Gray and Ira Rosen’s book titled The Warning the plant that eventually became Three Mile Island Unit 2 was originally ordered to be Oyster Creek Unit 2. General Public Utilities (GPU) decided to relocate the project to Pennsylvania in order to avoid a threatened shakedown from a New Jersey crime boss.
When the company Neely worked for, Jersey Central Power and Light, announced plans to build Oyster Creek Unit Two, the mob must have thought it was Christmas in July. One of the boys went to the president of the company and told him he would guarantee industrial peace for the duration in exchange for 1 percent of the construction price. Since the second nuclear plant at Oyster Creek is expected to run $700,000,000, this guy would pocket $7 million.
Working at a killing pace over the next ninety days, the combined engineering staffs of these several corporations manage to completely rewrite the entire design study for the plant. On March 10, 1969, a company courier arrives in Washington with an amendment to the GPU petition for license. Included is a complete revision of the Preliminary Safety Analysis Report, a five-volume study running more than a thousand pages. The amendment requests that Jersey Central Power and Light be allowed to transfer ownership of the plant to Metropolitan Edison of Pennsylvania and that the plant be relocated from Oyster Creek in New Jersey to Three Mile Island on the Susquehanna south of Harrisburg.
Somehow, the people that made that decision neglected to take into account just how close Pennsylvania is to New Jersey. The two sites are only 3 hours apart by car. Add organized crime to the list of groups that have a motive to issue a warning by taking down a nuclear power plant.
Despite some natural reluctance, we must add independently-motivated, disgruntled worker(s) to the suspect list. No large industrial enterprise is universally populated with people that love their jobs, their managers and their employers. There are always people who are unhappy, feel abused, or are disappointed with their prospects for promotion or continued employment. The origin of the concept of sabotage, after all, can be traced to the actions of disgruntled employees who actively destroy capital equipment at their place of employment.
Even in highly controlled and normally positive environments, like arms manufacturers during a world war or shipyards serving naval vessels, there is a history of actions taken by individuals or small groups to disrupt production. For example, it was not long ago that a disgruntled shipyard worker started a fire that ended up with the Navy deciding to decommission the USS Miami because the cost of repairing the fire damage could not be justified.
At the time that the TMI accident occurred, the nuclear industry was still growing fast, needed to hire many new people, and did not have the kind of security checks or fitness for duty evaluations that are common today. The specific equipment malfunctions that caused TMI could be inserted from spaces that were not well controlled and were often devoid of any people. Even janitors and low skill maintenance workers had access.
Once again, a Sabotage at TMI installment is getting so long that it is time to wrap it up, but there is one more set of motivated suspects who need to be considered.
Here is an image from a daily stock market analysis column published by the New York Times on March 30, 1979.
Here is the text from that image, which was reporting on market behavior on March 29, 1979, the day after the accident started at TMI:
Most stocks had small price changes. Among the exceptions was Columbia Pictures Industries, which gained 2 to 24. The company attributed the recent interest in the stock to its recently released movie “The China Syndrome,” which is about the containment of an accident at a nuclear power plant.
The stock of Columbia Pictures began advancing after the picture opened on March 16, but yesterday’s upswing came after news Wednesday of a leak at a nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, PA. General Public Utilities, which owns the Harrisburg nuclear plant, dropped 5/8 to 16 3/4.
The March 31, 1979 stock market report mentioned above includes a follow-up report.
However, one stock rose in response to the nuclear accident. Columbia Pictures tacked on 7/8 to 24 3/4 after gaining 2 points on Thursday. On March 16 the company released a film, “The China Syndrome,” about a fictional accident at a nuclear power facility.
Analysts said investors apparently were buying the stock in the belief that the Three Mile Island accident and the huge publicity resulting from it would spur interest in the movie.
There was little or no mention of the words “The China Syndrome” in the New York Times during the period from March 1, 1979 – March 28, 1979, even though that period includes the movie’s theater opening. Until the accident at TMI, the $6 million investment made in the big Hollywood names and the expansive, technically correct set seems to have been greeted with a yawn from the viewing public.
The accident provided a huge boost to the film’s promotion efforts. As noted in a previous installment, the specific event depicted in the movie was nearly identical to the one that happened. There were hundreds to thousands of people associated with the film who had a general idea about the possible impact of a loss of feed water on a pressurized water reactor. Some of them had a strong financial or political motive for wanting to make life imitate art.
It was not just about selling tickets to see a movie; the people involved in creating and distributing The China Syndrome wanted people to see their work and get motivated to take action to join the fight against the nuclear energy industry.
I hope you are enjoying this series. There are still many aspects to cover, so I am not sure how many installments remain. Please tell your friends about this experimental use of an energy blog to recreate the old-fashioned serial mystery story.