Newspaper: The Patriot
Date: March 29, 1979
Title: Scranton: Emission Levels Were Played Down
Author: Carmen Brutto, Staff Writer
Lt. Gov. William W. Scranton III and Metropolitan Edison Co. officials underplayed the extent of radioactive emissions caused by the radiation leakage Wednesday at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station.
Initially state officials were led to believe that emissions were limited to the few hours after the leakage was discovered at 4 a.m.
However, Scranton told a late afternoon press conference that Met Ed “has given you and us conflicting information.”
“This situation is more complex than the company first led us to believe,” Scranton said. “We are taking more tests, and at this point, we believe there is still no danger to public health.
“There has been a release of radioactivity into the environment, the magnitude of the release is still being determined, but there is no evidence yet that it has resulted in the presence of dangerous levels.”
SCRANTON met with reporters shortly before 11 a.m. to brief them on the incident. Later, he said that even as he was making his report, the company was discharging into the air steam that contained detectable amounts of radiation. According to Scranton, the discharge occurred between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m., and was a part of the “normal” reactor emergency cooling process.
“It was done to relieve potentially dangerous pressure in the reactor chamber,” he said. “Because of an apparent leak in the primary cooling system, radioactive material was discharged into the air along with the steam.”
Scranton said the Department of Environmental Resources was not notified of the release until about the time it was halted. The company said that further discharges may be necessary and said it would notify the state should it happen, he said.
The detected levels of radiation were below any existing or proposed emergency action levels, the lieutenant governor said.
“But we are concerned because any increased exposure carries with it some increased health risks,” Scranton said. “The full impact on public health is being evaluated as environmental samples are analyzed. We are concerned most about radioactive iodine, which can accumulate in the thyroid, either through breathing or through drinking milk. Fortunately, we don’t believe the risk is significant because most dairy cows are on stored feed at this time of the year.”
Scranton said teams from the state Department of Agriculture would begin testing cows for any evidence of contamination.
TESTS ARE also being conducted in the area by teams from DER, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the U.S. Department of Energy. Preliminary evidence, Scranton said, was that levels had been decreasing throughout the afternoon.
Thomas Gerusky, head of the DER’s Bureau of Radiological Protection, said slight amounts of radiation had been detected as far away as Harrisburg.
The highest detected amount of radiation was at seven millirems, Gerusky said. For comparison, he said a chest x-ray exposes a person to from 20 to 100 millirems.
Gerusky said the detection teams would move out from the immediate plant site to make checks on possible contamination.
“Until we can determine the maximum possible exposure, we won’t know what the worst case (of exposure) could have been,” Gerusky said. “It should be very, very small.”
Scranton indicated “a great deal of disappointment” that the company did not make full disclosure on its actions, particularly the decision to vent the contaminated steam.
It was unclear as to exactly what happened to cause the radiation seepage from Unit 2 at Three Mile Island following a malfunction in a turbine. From information given Scranton by Met Ed, there was at least a failure of a valve in the primary system, and some evidence of a fuel element rupture.
The government, he said, would conduct a probe into the incident.
At the morning press conference, state officials said a time lag of more than three hours in being notified about the breakdown and a lack of sophisticated mobile monitoring equipment hampered the state’s reaction to the accident.
THE STATE was dependent upon Met Ed on the extent of the radiation as well as all other factors connected with the failure.
According to William Dornsife, nuclear engineer in DER’s Bureau of Radiological Protection, it was not until 7 a.m., or three hours after the turbine shut down, that Civil Defense officials were called.
(Scranton said later that the company reported it had not detected radiation until about 6:50 a.m.)
Oran Henderson, Civil Defense director, said a Met Ed official called at 7 a.m. and said “we have an emergency,” without going into detail. Civil defense notified DER and local CD units in York, Dauphin and Lancaster counties, and then later those in Lebanon and Cumberland counties.
“Initially, our report was that it was a serious incident, so our procedures were to prepare for possible evacuation in the York County area only,” Henderson said.
However, he said, within a quarter hour confirmation came from DER that the situation was not serious. Neither Henderson nor any other official at a special press conference could clarify who first termed the situation “serious.”
Henderson said he was bothered by the fact that Met Ed officials waited until 7 a.m. to inform the state of the emergency situation.
According to Dornsife, Met Ed sent its personnel to the plant boundaries and to Goldsboro to take radiation readings. They detected a small amount of radioactive iodine on the ground, he said.
“It was at a level that would not cause any inhalation problem with people,” Dornsife said. “It may show up in the milk, within a week or so, like during the (Chinese atomic test) fallout incident we had a couple of years ago.”
CONTAMINATION, he said, was measured at one milirem per hour, in an area with a normal background radiation of about 100 milirem per year.
Dornsife said DER personnel would take confirmatory samples later on to determine what the iodine levels are.
At the time of the press conference, about seven hours after the initial detection of the radiation leak, Dornsife said that DER personnel charged with monitoring the atmosphere “are standing by in our office.” Asked why they were not at the site of the leakage, Dornsife replied:
“Because we haven’t felt that they needed to be. We relied on the company’s instrumentation.”
The state was depending on the utility, he said, because it does not have mobile equipment similar to the company’s.
The equipment to corroborate the company’s findings is in DER laboratories, Dornsife said.
“We can’t go out in the field immediately and take a sample and read it at that point,” he said. “We’d have to go out and take it and go back to our laboratory. It would take time. That’s why we’re relying on their mobile equipment.”
Dornsife said the department has no legal authority to go inside the plant and monitor. He said routine monitoring of the environment is done by taking air samples, river samples, soil samples and checking them in the laboratory.
In addition, Dornsife said DER does a confirmatory analysis of the monitoring data gathered by Met Ed.
Efforts by the DER to buy its own monitoring equipment have been stymied by the Legislature’s refusal to provide the funds, he said.