The Nuclear Accident at Three Mile Island: Day 4

Saturday March 31, 1979


from the President's Commission report

Part 1

The great concern about a potential hydrogen explosion inside the TMI-2 reactor came with the weekend. That it was a groundless fear, an unfortunate error, never penetrated the public consciousness afterward, partly because the NRC made no effort to inform the public it had erred.

Around 9:30 p.m. Friday night, the NRC chairman asked Roger Mattson to explore the rate at which oxygen was being generated inside the TMI-2 reactor system and the risk of a hydrogen explosion. "He said he had done calculations," Mattson said in his deposition. "He was concerned with the answers." Mattson is director of the Division of Systems Safety within the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation (NRR), which is headed by Denton, and had spent part of Thursday and Friday working on how to remove a gas bubble from the reactor. Following Denton's departure for TMI, Mattson served variously as NRR's representative or deputy representative at the Incident Response Center.

Hydrogen had been produced in the reactor as a result of a high-temperature reaction that occurred between hot steam and the zirconium cladding of the fuel rods. For this hydrogen to explode or burn -- a less dangerous possibility - - enough oxygen would have to enter the system to form an explosive mixture. There were fears this would happen as the result of radiolysis. In this process, radiation breaks apart water molecules, which contain hydrogen and oxygen.

Two NRC teams worked throughout the weekend on the problem, and both sought help from laboratories and scientists outside the NRC. One group addressed the rate at which radiolysis would generate oxygen at TMI-2. The second analyzed the potential for hydrogen combustion. Robert Budnitz of the NRC also asked experts about possible chemicals that might remove the hydrogen.

At noon, Hendrie talked by telephone with Denton and expressed his Concern that oxygen feed by radiolysis was building up in the reactor. Earlier, Hendrie had told Victor Stello Jr., Denton’s second-in-command at TMI, the same thing. The NRC chairman told Denton that Governor Thornburgh should be made aware of the potential danger. Denton promised to speak with Thornburgh.

Shortly after 1:00 p.m., Mattson got some preliminary answers regarding the potential for a hydrogen explosion. An hour later, Mattson got more replies. "I had an estimate there was oxygen being generated, from four independent sources, all with known credentials in this field," he said in his deposition. "The estimate of how much oxygen varied, but all estimates said there was considerable time, a matter of several days, before there was a potential combustible mixture in the reactor coolant system.."

At a Commission hearing, Mattson later admitted in response to questions from Commissioner Pigford that the NRC could have determined from the information available at that time that no excess oxygen was being generated and there was no real danger of explosion. But when Mattson met with the NRC commissioners at 3:27 p.m. on Saturday, "the bottom line of that conversation . . was there were several days required to reach the flammability limit, although there was oxygen being generated," Mattson recalled in his deposition. "And I expressed confidence that we were not underestimating the reactor coolant system explosion potential; that is, the estimate of 2 to 3 days before reaching the flammability limit was a conservative estimate. By Saturday night, however, Mattson would be told by his consultants that their calculations indicated that the oxygen percentage of the bubble was on the threshold of the flammability limit.

Around 6:45 p.m., Mattson talked with Vincent Noonan, the man within NRC most knowledgeable about what might result from an explosion inside a reactor. One NRC consultant had predicted that a hydrogen blast would produce pressures of 20,000 pounds per square inch within the TMI-2 reactor. B&W, designer of the reactor, however, had considered the dampening effects of water vapor on an explosion and those of an enriched hydrogen environment and calculated a total pressure of 3,000 to 4,000 psi. That was encouraging. Previous analyses indicated the reactor coolant system of a TMI-2 reactor could withstand blast pressures of that magnitude.

Late Saturday evening, James Taylor of B&W reiterated another B&W engineer's conclusion first relayed to the NRC Thursday night --that no excess oxygen was being generated. That information, Mattson stated in his deposition, never reached him.

Saturday at 2:45 p.m., Hendrie met with reporters in Bethesda. He said then that a precautionary evacuation out to 10 or 20 miles from the Island might be necessary if engineers attempted to force the bubble out of the reactor. NRC had concluded such an attempt might cause further damage to the core, Hendrie said, and touch off an explosion of the bubble.

Stan Benjamin, a reporter with the Washington bureau of the Associated Press, followed up Hendrie's press conference by interviewing two NRC officials: Edson Case, Denton's deputy in the Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, and Frank Ingram, a public information spokeman. From them, and an NRC source he refused to name, Benjamin learned of the concern within the Incident Response Center that the bubble could become a potentially explosive mixture within a matter of days, perhaps as few as two. Benjamin checked his story with Case and Ingram, reading much of it to them word by word, before releasing the article. Case and Ingram agreed it was accurate. The report -- first transmitted as an editor's note at 8:23 p.m. -- was the first notice to the public that some NRC officials feared the bubble might possibly explode spontaneously.

Denton had been briefed throughout Saturday afternoon and evening by Hendrie and NRC officials in Bethesda on the oxygen estimates and the potential for a burn or explosion. But he learned of the AP story only a short time before he joined Governor Thornburgh and Lieutenant Governor Scranton for a late evening press conference in Harrisburg. The Governor assured reporters that "there is no imminent catastrophic event foreseeable at the Three Mile Island facility." Denton, too, said: "There is not a combustible mixture in the containment or in the reactor vessel. And there is no near-term danger at all." Denton also tried to deflate the impression, voiced by several reporters, that contradictions existed between himself and his colleagues at NRC headquarters. "No, there is no disagreement. I guess it is the way things get presented," he said.

But there was disagreement, and Denton wanted it resolved. President Carter had announced earlier in the evening he would visit TMI the following day. Denton told Stello to explore the oxygen-hydrogen issue further with outside experts. Stello realized the concern in Washington. He had received a telephone call shortly after 9:00p.m. from Eugene Eidenberg, a Presidential aide, inquiring about the AP story. Stello told the White House that he did not share the concern felt at NRC headquarters.

Part 2

Saturday, as the NRC wrestled with managing the accident and the envisioned danger of the hydrogen bubble, officials of the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare struggled with their own concerns. That morning, senior HEW health officials gathered and continued the previous day's discussion of the possibility of an evacuation; for the first time, they debated how large an area should be evacuated. But the discussions led ultimately to a recommendation to consider immediate evacuation if the NRC could not provide assurances that the reactor was cooling safely. Joseph Califano, HEW Secretary, summarized the group's views in a memorandum to Jack Watson of the President's staff.

Later in the day, HEW health officials attended an interagency meeting at the White House, convened by Watson, and repeated the HEW recommendation to consider evacuation. Richard Cotton, a key Califano aide, raised another Califano recommendation that NRC officials consult with HEW and Environmental Protection Agency experts regarding the potential health effects of the efforts to control TMI-2's reactor. Cotton persisted after the meeting, and on Sunday and Tuesday HEW officials were briefed by the NRC These briefings, however, were always informational; there was no NRC effort to seek HEW’s advice.

- - - end of Day 4 narrative - - -

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