Fairness at TMI, Back Then and Now

three mile island
Turns out, I’ve had an abiding interest in fairness since boyhood. Don’t know why, but at least since I had my paper route all those years ago, I wanted to be a reporter so I could go out, get people’s stories and tell them accurately.

That’s what I did for 20 years, principally on the late, lamented Philadelphia Bulletin. But then, in 1979, the accident at Three Mile Island Unit 2 occurred and, a couple of months later, a former colleague at The Bulletin called to advise that he’d just been named TMI’s Communications Manager, and did I want to come out to be its Media Relations Manager? He was calling on behalf of the GPU Nuclear Corp., which was being formed to apply the lessons of the Unit 2 accident on behalf of General Public Utilities, TMI’s owner/operator.

Well, there was a chance to get really engaged with fairness, to help people deal with a traumatic presence in their lives, and I accepted the offer. I worked at TMI for 14 years and found it a highly satisfying experience in community relations.

We began by recognizing that the accident had frightened the dickens out of people, especially those living near the plant, on both sides of the Susquehanna River. The only alternative was to seek to build credibility over how TMI-2 was being cleaned up, and TMI-1, its sister plant, was being prepared for its eventual restart.

Over time, we had more success with the area’s news media, probably, than with many of the affected residents, but that was, nonetheless, important. We resolved to let the media know, via press releases and “stand-up” TV interviews, what was behind any unusual activity that appeared to be happening at TMI. That included, one day, an advisory on why workers would be walking high along the upper rims of Unit 2’s cooling towers, to maintain them.

Ten years later, when it came time to restart Unit 1, the restart occurred without incident and TMI-1 had one of the best operational records in the world.

But there was something else about fairness at TMI, besides technical competence, once the full challenge of nuclear technology had been recognized. And that was to relate directly, not just via news releases, to the people who were living around the power station.

Robert C. Arnold, the former Navy nuclear engineer whom GPU placed in charge of the Unit 2 cleanup, would attend community meetings and, first, listen, attentively and respectfully, to the residents’ concerns. Then he’d respond to them, patiently and sympathetically. Bob Arnold took a lot of heat in the process, as anyone seeking to be effectively responsive, another term for fairness, is apt to do.

We operated a TMI visitors center, gave walking tours of the accessible areas of Unit 2 (outside the reactor building) as well as Unit 1, and conducted energy education classes in the area’s schools.

TMI today doesn’t have quite the outreach it did back then. Unit 1’s current owner, the Exelon Corporation, probably figures it doesn’t need it, and maybe so. But nuclear power will always be capable of scaring people and, in fairness, it’s advisable to keep them informed, faithfully and sincerely, about what’s occurring at whatever plant may be involved.