Report Of The President's Commission On
The Accident At Three Mile Island           > TMI-2 > Kemeny

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The Accident




The President asked us to investigate whether the public's right to information during the emergency was well served. Our conclusion is again in the negative. However, here there were many different causes, and it is both harder to assign proper responsibility and more difficult to come up with appropriate recommendations. There were serious problems with the sources of information, with how this information was conveyed to the press, and also with the way the press reported what it heard.

We do not find that there was a systematic attempt at a "cover-up" by the sources of information. Some of the official news sources were themselves confused about the facts and there were major disagreements among officials. On the first day of the accident, there was an attempt by the utility to minimize its significance, in spite of substantial evidence that it was serious. Later that week, NRC was the source of exaggerated stories. Due to misinformation, and in one case (the hydrogen bubble) through the commission of scientific errors, official sources would make statements about radiation already released (or about the imminent likelihood of releases of major amounts of radiation) that were not justified by the facts -- at least not if the facts had been correctly understood. And NRC was slow in confirming good news about the hydrogen bubble. On the other hand, the estimated extent of the damage to the core was not fully revealed to the public.

A second set of problems arose from the manner in which the facts were presented to the press. Some of those who briefed the press lacked the technical expertise to explain the events and seemed to be cut off from those who could have provided this expertise. When those who did have the knowledge spoke, their statements were often couched in "jargon" that was very difficult for the press to understand. The press was further disturbed by the fact that, in order to cut down on the amount of confusion, a number of potential sources of information were instructed not to give out information. While this cut down on the amount of confusion, it flew in the face of the long tradition of the press of checking facts with multiple sources.

Many factors contributed to making this event one of the most heavily covered media events ever. Given these circumstances, the media generally attempted to give a balanced presentation which would not contribute to an escalation of panic. There were, however, a few notable examples of irresponsible reporting and some of the visual images used in the reporting tended to be sensational.

Another severe problem was that even personnel representing the major national news media often did not have sufficient scientific and engineering background to understand thoroughly what they heard, and did not have available to them people to explain the information. This problem was most serious in the reporting of the various releases of radiation and the explanation of the severity (or lack of severity) of these releases. Many of the stories were so garbled as to make them useless as a source of information.

We therefore conclude that, while the extent of the coverage was justified, a combination of confusion and weakness in the sources of information and lack of understanding on the part of the media resulted in the public being poorly served.

In considering the handling of information during the nuclear accident, it is vitally important to remember the fear with respect to nuclear energy that exists in many human beings. The first application of nuclear energy was to atomic bombs which destroyed two major Japanese cities. The fear of radiation has been with us ever since and is made worse by the fact that, unlike floods or tornadoes, we can neither hear nor see nor smell radiation. Therefore, utilities engaged in the operation of nuclear power plants, and news media that may cover a possible nuclear accident, must make extraordinary preparation for the accurate and sensitive handling of information.

There is a natural conflict between the public's right to know and the need of disaster managers to concentrate on their vital tasks without distractions. There is no simple resolution for this conflict. But significant advance preparation can alleviate the problem. It is our judgment that in this case, neither the utility nor the NRC nor the media were sufficiently prepared to serve the public well.