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

Quick Links:

Report Index

The Commission

Senior Staff







The Accident




Just how serious was the accident? Based on our investigation of the health effects of the accident, we conclude that in spite of serious damage to the plant, most of the radiation was contained and the actual release will have a negligible effect on the physical health of individuals. The major health effect of the accident was found to be mental stress.

The amount of radiation received by any one individual outside the plant was very low. However, even low levels of radiation may result in the later development of cancer, genetic defects, or birth defects among children who are exposed in the womb. Since there is no direct way of measuring the danger of low-level radiation to health, the degree of danger must be estimated indirectly. Different scientists make different assumptions about how this estimate should be made and, therefore, estimates vary. Fortunately, in this case the radiation doses were so low that we conclude that the overall health effects will be minimal. There will either be no case of cancer or the number of cases will be so small that it will never be possible to detect them. The same conclusion applies to the other possible health effects. The reasons for these conclusions are as follows.

An example of a projection derived for the total number of radiation-induced cancers among the population affected by the accident at TMI was 0.7. This number is an estimate of an average, such as the one that appears in the statement: "The average American family has 2.3 children."

In the case of TMI, what it really means is that each of some 2 million individuals living within 50 miles has a miniscule additional chance of dying of cancer, and when all of these minute probabilities are added up, they total 0.7. In such a situation, a mathematical law known as a Poisson distribution (named after a famous French mathematician) applies. If the estimated average is 0.7, then the actual probabilities for cancer deaths due to the accident work out as follows: There is a roughly 50 percent chance that there will be no additional cancer deaths, a 35 percent chance that one individual will die of cancer, a 12 percent chance that two people will die of cancer, and it is practically certain that there will not be as many as five cancer deaths.

Similar probabilities can be calculated for our various estimates. All of them have in common the following: It is entirely possible that not a single extra cancer death will result. And for all our estimates, it is practically certain that the additional number of cancer deaths will be less than 10.

Since a cancer caused by nuclear radiation is no different from any other cancer, additional cancers can only be determined statistically. We know from statistics on cancer deaths that among the more than 2 million people living within 50 miles of TMI, eventually some 325,000 people will die of cancer, for reasons having nothing to do with the nuclear power plant. Again, this number is only an estimate, and the actual figure could be as much as 1,000 higher or 1,000 lower Therefore there is no conceivable statistical method by which fewer than 10 additional deaths would ever be detected. Therefore the accident may result in no additional cancer deaths or, if there were any, they would be so few that they could not be detected.

We found that the mental stress to which those living within the vicinity of Three Mile Island were subjected was quite severe. There were several factors that contributed to this stress. Throughout the first week of the accident, there was extensive speculation on just how serious the accident might turn out to be. At various times, senior officials of the NRC and the state government were considering the possibility of a major evacuation. There were a number of advisories recommending steps short of a full evacuation. Some significant traction of the population in the immediate vicinity voluntarily left the region. NRC officials contributed to the raising of anxiety in the period from Friday to Sunday (March 30-April 1)- On Friday a mistaken interpretation of the release of a burst of radiation led some NRC officials to recommend immediate evacuation. And on Friday Governor Thornburgh advised pregnant women and preschool aged children within 5 miles of TMI to leave the area. On Saturday and Sunday, other NRC officials mistakenly believed that there was an imminent danger of an explosion of a hydrogen bubble within the reactor vessel, and evacuation was again a major subject of discussion.

We conclude that the most serious health effect of the accident was severe mental stress, which was short-lived. The highest levels of distress were found among those living within 5 miles of TMI and in families with preschool children.

There was very extensive damage to the plant. While the reactor itself has been brought to a "cold shutdown," there are vast amounts of radioactive material trapped within the containment and auxiliary buildings. The utility is therefore faced with a massive cleanup process that carries its own potential dangers to public health The ongoing cleanup operation at TMI demonstrates that the plant was inadequately designed to cope with the cleanup of a damaged plant The direct financial cost of the accident is enormous. Our best estimate puts it in a range of $1 to $2 billion, even if TMI-2 can be put back into operation. (The largest portion of this is for replacement power estimated for the next few years.) And since it may not be possible to put it back into operation, the cost could even be much larger.

The accident raised concerns all over the world and led to a lowering of public confidence in the nuclear industry and in the NRC.

From the beginning, we felt it important to determine not only how serious the actual impact of the accident was on public health, but whether we came close to a catastrophic accident in which a large number of people would have died. Issues that had to be examined were whether a chemical (hydrogen) or steam explosion could have ruptured the reactor vessel and containment building, and whether extremely hot molten fuel could have caused severe damage to the containment. The danger was never -- and could not have been -- that of a nuclear explosion (bomb).

We have made a conscientious effort to get an answer to this difficult question. Since the accident was due to a complex combination of minor equipment failures and major inappropriate human actions, we have asked the question: "What if one more thing had gone wrong?"

We explored each of several different scenarios representing a change in the sequence of events that actually took place. The greatest concern during the accident was that significant amounts of radioactive material (especially radioactive iodine) trapped within the plant might be released. Therefore, in each case, we asked whether the amount released would have been smaller or greater, and whether large amounts could have been released.

Some of these scenarios lead to a more favorable outcome than what actually happened. Several other scenarios lead to increases in the amount of radioactive iodine released, but still at levels that would not have presented a danger to public health. But we have also explored two or three scenarios whose precise consequences are much more difficult to calculate. They lead to more severe damage to the core, with additional melting of fuel in the hottest regions. These consequences are, surprisingly, independent of the age of the fuel.

Because of the uncertain physical condition of the fuel, cladding, and core, we have explored certain special and severe conditions that would, unequivocally, lead to a fuel-melting accident. In this sequence of events fuel melts, falls to the bottom of the vessel, melts through the steel reactor vessel, and finally, some fuel reaches the floor of the containment building below the reactor vessel where there is enough water to cover the molten fuel and remove some of the decay heat. To contain such an accident, it is necessary to continue removing decay heat for a period of many months.

At this stage we approach the limits of our engineering knowledge of the interactions of molten fuel, concrete, steel, and water, and even the best available calculations have a degree of uncertainty associated with them. Our calculations show that even if a roeltdown occurred, there is a high probability that the containment building and the hard rock on which the TMI-2 containment building is built would have been able to prevent the escape of a large amount of radioactivity. These results derive from very careful calculations, which hold only insofar as our assumptions are valid. We cannot be absolutely certain of these results.

Some of the limits of this investigation were: (1) We have not examined possible consequences of operator error during or after the fuel melting process which might compromise the effectiveness of containment; (2) We have not examined the vulnerability of the various electrical and plumbing penetrations through the walls or the doorways for people and equipment; (3) The analysis was specific to the TMI-2 design and location (for example, the bedrock under the plant); (4) We recognize that we have only explored a limited number of alternatives to the question "What if . . .?" and, others may come up with a plausible scenario whose results would have been even more serious.

We strongly urge that research be carried out promptly to identify and analyze the possible consequences of accidents leading to severe core damage. Such knowledge is essential for coping with results of future accidents. It may also indicate weaknesses in present designs, whose correction would be important for the prevention of serious accidents.

These uncertainties have not prevented us from reaching an over- whelming consensus on corrective measures. Our reasoning is as follows: Whether in this particular case we came close to a catastrophic accident or not, this accident was too serious. Accidents as serious as TMI should not be allowed to occur in the future.

The accident got sufficiently out of hand so that those attempting to control it were operating somewhat in the dark. While today the causes are well understood, 6 months after the accident it is still difficult to know the precise state of the core and what the conditions are inside the reactor building. Once an accident reaches this stage, one that goes beyond well-understood principles, and puts those controlling the accident into an experimental mode (this happened during the first day), the uncertainty of whether an accident could result in major releases of radioactivity is too high. Adding to this the enormous damage to the plant, the expensive and potentially dangerous cleanup process that remains, and the great cost of the accident, we must conclude that -- whatever worse could have happened -- the accident had already gone too far to make it tolerable.

While throughout this entire document we emphasize that fundamental changes are necessary to prevent accidents as serious as TMI, we must not assume that an accident of this or greater seriousness cannot happen again, even if the changes we recommend are made. Therefore, in addition to doing everything to prevent such accidents, we must be fully prepared to minimize the potential impact of such an accident on public health and safety, should one occur in the future.