TMI leak raises anxiety

Fallout focuses on Exelon’s decision to wait 5 hours before calling local and state officials.

by Garry Lenton Press And Journal Staff : 11/25/2009
Investigators at Three Mile Island are trying to figure out why a change in air pressure inside the Unit-1 containment building on Saturday caused a small release of radiation that forced the evacuation of 175 workers.
No one was injured, and the public was never in jeopardy, plant and federal regulators said. Some 20 employees were exposed to low-levels of radiation.
But state and local officials, including Gov. Ed Rendell, are questioning why Exelon waited more than four hours to notify public officials about the situation.
 
 
The incident was discovered about 4 p.m. Saturday. Middletown Mayor Robert Reid said he received a telephone call from TMI spokesman Ralph DeSantis about 8:45 p.m., nearly 5 hours later.
 
Reid, after consulting with a member of his staff, notified Dauphin County emergency management authorities about an hour after that, he said.
 
Though Reid said he wasn’t upset by the delay, he admitted he would have preferred to know sooner.
Dauphin County Commission Nick DiFrancesco took a more forceful stance, stating Monday that Exelon erred by not reaching out sooner.
 
“While there was no legal requirements for them to notifiy us, I think this incident is an example of what happens when adequate information isn’t shared,” he said.
 
Rendell spokesman Gary Tuma told The Philadelphia Inquirer the governor was writing a letter to Exelon calling the five-hour delay inappropriate.
 
Eric Epstein, chairman of the watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert, went further when he labeled the calling delay a “communications fiasco.”
 
“It appears that they have learned nothing [from the 1979 accident],” he said.
TMI’s DeSantis said the level of radiation released was well below an “unusual event,” a designation requiring the notification of state and local officials within 15 minutes. 
 
However, he said, the company will review its handling of the information.
“If there is a way that we can improve this we certainly will,” he said.
 
TMI’s Unit 1 reactor has been shut down for refueling and maintenance since Oct. 26. Saturday’s incident occurred while workers were removing one of two steam generators that are being replaced.
Inspectors for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission were at the site Saturday to monitor Exelon’s response to the release. Federal regulators will continue to investigate the cause of the release.
 
“Although the event was relatively minor in terms of public health and safety, our expectation is that Exelon will get to the bottom of the event in a timely and thorough manner,” NRC Region I Administrator Samuel J. Collins said. “We will be working to better understand the source of the contamination and whether adequate controls were in place at the time of the event.”
 
The state Department of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Radiation Protection is also investigating the incident. Director Dave Allard said Exelon must find the root cause of the contamination and take protective measures. 
 
According to a company statement, the radiation release was caused by a change in air pressure inside the containment building that dislodged small irradiated particles inside the piping of one of the generators. The air pressure change occurred when ventilation fans inside the building were started. Exelon has modified the ventilation system to prevent future air pressure changes, the statement said.
 
“Things are back to normal,” site Vice President Bill Noll said. “We are back performing outage activities as we had originally planned.”
 
Outage work not associated with the containment building involving more than 3,000 other plant and temporary workers continued throughout the weekend, company officials said.
 
The incident is expected to delay slightly the restart of the unit 1 reactor, DeSantis said.
 Exelon reiterated that no contamination was found outside the containment building and said the event never posed a threat to the health or safety of employees or the public.
 
Radiation monitors around the region maintained by the independent EFMR Monitoring group, appeared to confirm that finding.
 
But Epstein, who created the non-partisan, community-based group with money from a lawsuit against former TMI operator Met-Ed, said the monitors only catch atmospheric radiation.
 
“I’m still uncomfortable not knowing what the source is,” he said.
 
 Tests of the workers over the weekend showed no employee received a radiation dose above what would be considered normal for work inside the containment building.
 
 Plant officials said 150 were checked for radiation. Of those, 20 received a detectable amount of radiation. The highest was 38.4 millirem, less than 1 percent of the annual federaloccupational exposure limit. A millirem is a measure of radiation exposure. The federal occupational limit is 5,000 millirem per year for workers; Exelon has a more conservative standard of 2,000 millirem per year, Exelon officials said.
 
Staff writer Debra Schell contributed to this report.
Garry Lenton: 717-944-4628glenton@pressandjournal.com