Assesment of J. Kemeny’s Report from Pres. Commission on Accident at TMI

At Princeton University in the 1950s, Professor John Kemeny was known for his precision and persuasiveness–at least in teaching his course on Aristotelian and symbolic logic. It is unfortunate that he did not apply these talents in adequate measure to himself and the rest of the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island.

The commission’s report was carefully written to avoid a clarity of response to the questions addressed under Kemeny’s chairmanship. This assessment no doubt will dismay some of the commission’s 12 members. But look at the reaction to the report. There was bipartisan praise from Congress. The nuclear industry was relieved that the commission did not call for a moratorium on licensing the construction or operation of new nuclear plants.

“Proceed, but proceed with caution,” was how one industry representative summed up the 179 pages of findings and recommendations. Nuclear critics found the criticism of the utility, the manufacturers and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission supportive of what they have been saying over the years.

But as a guide to future government policy, the Kemeny report will be remembered largely as advocating the abolition of the multi-member independent Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and its replacement with a single, responsible administrator accountable to the president and a presidentially appointed nuclear oversight committee.

It will not be remembered for recommending a break in the industry which a two-year or longer moratorium would have done. Its serious criticism of nuclear technology and regulation simply follows a long series of admissions, confessions and assertions by informed observers and participants of industry, government, universities and civic groups during the past decade. What would have made the presidential commission’s redundant findings truly metabolic for the “fundamental changes” that the commission urged upon its president and the public was a clear, unambiguous conclusory stand for a moratorium until those fundamental changes were in place.

Athough there was a majority of the commission generally in favor of a construction moratorium, according to the transcripts, there were specific differences about the conditions. Chairman Kemeny, according to reliable sources, did not lend sufficient leadership in negotiating these differences, preferring instead to avoid the matter entirely.

This lost opportunity cannot be dismissed, as it was by Kemeny, on the grounds that the regulators would simply say the conditions (such as proper sighting of plants) were met and off would go the moratorium. Certainly it cannot be dismissed in the light of the following strong words from the commission’s own report:

“We have stated that fundamental changes must occur in organizations, procedures, and above all, in the attitudes of people. No amount of technical ‘fixes’ will cure this underlying problem. There have been many previous recommendations for greater safety for nuclear power plants, which have had limited impact. What we consider crucial is whether the proposed improvements are carried out by the same organizations (unchanged), with the same kinds of practices and the same attitudes that were prevalent prior to the accident. As long as proposed improvements are carried out in a “business as usual” atmosphere, the fundamental changes necessitated by the accident at Three Mile Island cannot be realized.”

Recommending even a “railroad crossing” position of “Stop, Look and Listen” would have given the commission the conviction of a modest degree of courage. Instead of being a lighthouse however, the commission’s report will be another rivulet in the onrushing river of skepticism confronting the nuclear power industry.

This lack of decisive follow-through on its findings also is apparent in the commission’s observation that “the fundamental problems are people-related problems and not equipment problems” within both the utility and the NRC. Human factors engineering does not make such a crisp distinction. There are machines and technologies which place an unrealistic burden on human operators and managers. Given the report’s repeated acknowledgement of the inherent dangers of nuclear technology, can such strains in rapidly developing emergencies with such catastrophic consequences be realistically met wherever such plants are operating?

Moreover, continuing problems with pipe design, emergency core cooling system design and many other unresolved engineering aspects of nuclear installations should have tempered this “human error” school of thought.

The commission surprisingly neglected to mention in its restructuring of the NRC, provisions for insuring citizen access and rights in the agency’s decision-making processes. Such well-studied reforms as intervener funding, whistleblower protection and consumer advocacy received no consideration. Apparently, it is agency structure and not agency accountability to the public which defines the fundamental changes espoused by the Kemeny group.

In the final analysis, of course, nuclear power failures become very real people problems. As the commission said: “We must not assume that an accident of this (Three Mile Island scope) or greater seriousness cannot happen again, even if the changes we recommend are made.”

There followed a commission discourse on more rural sitting for plants and improved evacuation plans so people could flee from the path of radioactive clouds. That was the commission’s ‘last resort’ advice. The commission unnecessarily read its mandate as not considering whether nuclear power should be stopped or displaced by superior alternative ways of producing and using electricity. Such a mandate was left for the contemplation of free-thinking citizens.

Regrettably, a self-conscious Kemeny commission shows a narrower path than that permitted by President Carter’s request for “appropriate recommendations based upon the commission’s findings.”

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