It's been 38 years now, but the long legacy of the March 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant lingers to this day.
The crisis touched off a public panic in central Pennsylvania, ultimately leading to mass evacuations. This, as mixed messages and outright misinformation from both the power company and public officials masked the truth and eroded trust when it most mattered.
Nearly four decades later, those in central Pennsylvania left to fend for themselves amid this life-and-death crucible haven't forgotten. In fact, some are still emotionally affected.
"People didn't know who to turn to or who to trust, so they left town," recalls Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert, the nuclear plant monitoring group formed two years before the accident.
Central Pennsylvanians left in droves. The governor's evacuation advisory at the time covered only pregnant women and young children - around 5,000 people within a 5-mile radius of the plant, just outside Middletown.
Instead, an estimated 144,000 people clogged the roads and highways exiting the Harrisburg region, Epstein recalls.
"A lot of people didn't know if they were ever coming back," he says. "That is a psychic emotional experience that doesn't heal."
Not even 38 years later.
Yet, it fell to one man, above all else, to try and regain, then maintain, the public's trust in Three Mile Island over the next nearly four decades.
His name in Ralph DeSantis.
At the time of the accident, however, he was little more than a fresh-faced college graduate with a teaching degree who just happened to take a job as a TMI security guard a few months before what still stands as America's worst nuclear disaster.
Chain of errors
Three Mile Island's Unit 2 had been operating for just a few months, when in the wee hours of March 28, 1979, a chain of errors would touch off the most serious nuclear accident in American history.
The accident began with a relatively routine attempt by operators to clear a filter blockage while Unit 2 continued to operate at 97 percent capacity.
But as DeSantis now says, "nothing is ever routine in nuclear power."
Sure enough, a series of events caused feed water pumps supplying Unit 2's steam generators to be cut off. Heat and pressure began to build inside the reactor's coolant system. Eventually, this triggered an automatic shut-down of the reactor - exactly as designed.
But there were more problems.
Even though the nuclear reaction had been halted by the automatic shut-off, there was plenty of residual heat - and it was still building up within the primary cooling system.
Auxiliary pumps activated automatically. But because other valves had been closed for the original maintenance - a violation of federal regulations - no additional cooling water could be pumped in.
Pressure continued to build, triggering a pressure relief value. The relief valve should have closed as soon as the excess pressure was vented. But the valve stuck - another major design flaw.
Eventually, this stuck valve allowed precious water to escape the primary cooling system. It depressurized, uncovering part of the reactor core. With nothing to cool it, the core became super-heated, and the uranium oxide fuel rods and fuel pellets partially melted down.
"Half of the core became uncovered," DeSantis recounts. "That is not a good thing."
Human error compounded the design flaws.
Operators, confused by an errant indicator light on Unit 2's control panel, didn't realize the valve was stuck for hours. And they never verified whether the relief valve was actually opened or closed.
Worse, there was no instrument to directly measure the level of water in the core. So as pressure continued to mount as the super-heating accelerated, operators assumed there was too much water, instead of not enough.
This led operators to turn off emergency cooling pumps, which had automatically started in response to the overheating crisis. These operators ignored still other indicators of an ongoing loss-of-coolant - until at 4:15 a.m. on March 28, a relief tank ruptured and radioactive coolant began leaking into the general containment building.
Exactly 165 minutes had passed since this chain of events began when radiation alarms finally sounded.
Unit 2's general containment building was seriously contaminated. And radiation levels in the primary coolant water were now 300 times normal.
The crisis at Three Mile Island was just beginning.
Ralph DeSantis had every reason to believe his time at TMI would be temporary. His work as a security guard there was just something to tide him over until he could put his teaching degree to work and, perhaps, coach basketball, too.
Then three months later, the crisis occurred.
Soon, DeSantis found himself helping escort the likes of then-Gov. Richard "Dick" Thornburgh and then-President Jimmy Carter on and off the island as the crisis stretched out for days. Even as tens of thousands of central Pennsylvanians evacuated, DeSantis never gave a moment's thought to abandoning his post.
Looking back, he says this is because he had access to the best information coming from inside the plant - something the panicked public never had during the crisis.
"I was surrounded by people in the know," DeSantis says of the far-different atmosphere inside the plant, then owned by GPU's Metropolitan Edison. "We were getting very good information at the plant. One of the big problems was all the misinformation that was out there in the days after the accident."
Indeed, the company and public officials at various levels of governmental weren't on the same page at all. A panic-producing mess of mixed messages and flat-out incorrect information was the unfortunate result.
Simply put, the public didn't know where to turn for answers. So they left central Pennsylvania in droves.
"The accident was a textbook example of how not to handle a crisis," TMI Alert's Epstein says now. "The result was fear and lack of trust in the company and government institutions."
But even as a security guard, DeSantis was already thinking like the TMI communications staffer he would become some six months later.
Problem No. 1 was that the company employed no communications professionals at all.
"They had no one at the company in communications at the time," DeSantis recalls. "And there were zero connections with the local community."
Within this vacuum, miscommunications multiplied and public panic reached a fever-pitch.
"It was a very serious accident," DeSantis says now. "It got so much publicity and scared so many people. But it really didn't cause any problems."
In the end, Unit 2's containment building and its 3-1/2 feet of steel-lined, reinforced concrete held.
DeSantis says more than 99 percent of the radioactivity released from the core's closed system was contained inside building. Even the small amount of radioactivity vented into the atmosphere was in the form of noble gas, which DeSantis says doesn't affect the food chain and can be breathed and expelled by humans.
As proof, he cites a long series of independent, scientifically conducted health and cancer studies done in the decades since that show no statistically significant health effects from the accident.
"No impact," DeSantis insists. "I had to try to explain that."
Waiting for him was an angry public left feeling confused, terrified and misled. Not only would they remain unconvinced, many were openly hostile to anything the power company had to say.
It would fall to DeSantis, as a member of TMI's newly formed communications team, to try.
Otherwise, TMI's Unit 1, which was untouched by the crisis yet was ordered shut down, might never receive a federal license to resume operating.
Literally, billions hung in the balance.
Some serious venting
First things first. Three Mile Island, along with the larger nuclear power community, had to correct the mistakes exposed by the accident. These were the combination of control room design flaws, inadequate operational procedures and ineffective training that all combined to cause Unit 2's partial meltdown. Many upgrades, overhauls and retraining followed.
Beyond this, Three Mile Island, itself, would need a better way to communicate with the public and to forge stronger relations in the community. So within TMI, crisis communications was invented.
"Crisis communications was really born out of the TMI accident," DeSantis says. "I helped put together some of the first crisis communication plans. There was a huge need to have a plan in place, a real process and trained people to provide the information."
This would solve the miscommunication problem, should there ever be another accident.
But the most pressing problem post-crisis remained the plant's rock-bottom public perception. Trust in the power plant and the company operating it was left in tatters by the many missteps made in those waning days of March 1979.
DeSantis, part of the then-20-plus-member TMI communications team, fanned out to meet local governmental officials and hold scores of town hall meetings across the region, each one seeming to boil over with angry residents.
In those early years, the best DeSantis and others at the plant could do was play the target for the public's ire.
"A big part of us going out was to let people vent, to listen to people, to be empathetic," DeSantis recalls.
They'd receive an earful, and then some.
"A lot of anger and really upset people," he says. "All the trust was broken."
TMI was more than two years into its community relations campaign when officials were stunned to see just how much more work remained. The occasion was a 1982 public hearing held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC was still withholding Unit 1's federal license to resume operating. And the key to regaining the license remained the "trust and credibility of the operator."
If DeSantis and others thought the public hearing would show the fruits of their public relations efforts, they were badly mistaken. Instead, anger flowed and criticism of TMI rained down.
"It was just filled," DeSantis recalls of the meeting held in a high school gymnasium. "You couldn't get in. It was an emotionally charged meeting. And I was thinking, 'wow, I don't know when they will ever vote on the restart'."
It would be three more long years until Unit 1 regained its license, finally resuming operations in October 1985.
This proved a turning point.
From here on, actions would speak louder than words.
For six solid years -- from 1979's crisis to Unit 1's 1985 restart -- Three Mile Island remained a fixture in the headlines.
"National media was coming on a weekly basis for several years," DeSantis recalls.
Within central Pennsylvania, the media scrutiny was even more intense.
"From 1979 to 1985, TMI was in the newspaper every day," says Epstein, who as chairman of the nuclear plant watchdog group, TMI Alert, was on opposite sides from DeSantis.
"It was a fierce battleground," he says. "It included litigation and overwhelming public opposition to the restart of TMI-1.
All that intensity is lost today, making it difficult for anyone who wasn't there to understand, Epstein explains.
"There is a couple generations now between those who were viscerally affected by the accident, and those who came later," he points out.
Yet, even when the battle over TMI and nuclear power was at its hottest, DeSantis and Epstein found a way to communicate -- ultimately cooling community relations between the plant and the public, if not to the point of trust, at least to a truce.
"When you lose trust, it is hard," Epstein says. "And I am not saying they gained trust back. The problem with the PR side of nuclear was they were intent on proselytizing. They tend to want to convert their opponents. Ralph was instrumental in recognizing there is going to be opposing views, so how do we learn to work together?"
Three Mile Island accident legacy
Over 35 years, and from opposite sides, DeSantis and Epstein did learn, although Epstein believes in the adage, trust but verify. He still works with a group that monitors radiation around TMI in real time.
"Our relationship created a unique and constructive paradigm," Epstein says of DeSantis, the only member of TMI's original communications team who remained all these years.
"We know each other very well," Epstein adds. "Look, there were ups and downs. There were strong disagreements over the years. But you have to find a way to co-exist. I don't view the community as pro- or anti-nuclear. We are one community."
Now, this hard-fought, hard-won era of understanding is coming to a close. This, as the man who once thought his stint at Three Mile Island would end after a few months of working as a security guard finally walks away after 38 years.
Ralph DeSantis, for many the face of TMI, has retired, effective Feb. 28 at age 61.
"Ralph is irreplaceable," Epstein says. "He has institutional memory. He has experience. He experienced the accident, learned some lessons, and we all learned to live and work together. We've always communicated, no matter what problem or challenge was associated with TMI."
Now, that dialogue is ending.
Shoes to fill
DeSantis' replacement at TMI, now owned and operated by Exelon Generation, is former ABC27 anchor and reporter, Dave Marcheskie. He wasn't alive during the TMI accident.
Marcheskie first encountered DeSantis through the skeptical lens of TV camera, only to find the TMI spokesman credible and authentic. In other words, an honest broker when it came to dispensing information on everything TMI. Marcheskie is pledging to follow this example, after having worked alongside DeSantis these past several weeks.
"I learned from the best," Marcheskie declares.
But as for who really won their 35-year information campaign over TMI and nuclear power, DeSantis and Epstein will have to agree to disagree.
For his part, DeSantis points to the plant's record of community outreach, philanthropy and solid relationships with elected officials as proof that trust has been reclaimed. There's also Unit 1's stellar operational record since being restarted in 1985. So much so, Unit 1 was recently licensed for another 20 years. Its operational life now stretches until 2034 -- and even this could be extended again.
"It just took time," DeSantis says. "Every day, earning back trust, a little bit. Every day. We had kind of proven ourselves that we were going to communicate with people. Then in 1985, the plant started up and it ran so well; the proof was in the pudding. We weren't just talking. We could back up what we were saying."
Still, Epstein insists time isn't on nuclear power's side.
"TMI was the beginning of the end of nuclear power," he insists. Indeed, the industry was frozen in place for decades in America. More recently, however, a couple of new nuclear plants have come on line.
Nevertheless, Epstein remains fully confident of the industry's demise. It's not public opposition that will be its undoing -- rather, it will be simple, inescapable economics, he says.
"The problem for nuclear power is the market place is ruthless," Epstein insists. "They can't compete. It is an economic fiction. The business model has failed."
For that, one can blame cheap, abundant natural gas now generating the majority of America's power, much of it unleashed from shale deposits buried deep under parts of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. All this has been courtesy of another controversial process known as fracking.