* Man in charge at Three Mile Island sees big differences
* No one injured at Three Mile, and no radiation escaped
* Equipment failure, human error caused Three Mile Island
* Three Mile Island had only a single damaged reactor
By Bernie Woodall
DETROIT (Reuters) - The man who became the face
of the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster in 1979 says he had
it easy compared to those trying to regain control of Japan's
stricken Fukushima Daiichi plant this week.
Harold Denton, a senior official with the U.S. Nuclear
Regulatory Commission at the time, was picked by then-President
Jimmy Carter to take charge at the Pennsylvania plant as
operators were working to regain control of a reactor going
into partial meltdown.
He quickly became the face of the Three Mile Island crisis,
holding daily news conferences and making regular appearances
at the press center set up at the plant, located near
The incident terrified Americans and set back nuclear power
plant developments in the United States for 30 years. Even so,
Denton said conditions at the plant were far better than those
at the plant at the center of the current crisis in Japan.
"This is certainly far worse than Three Mile Island,"
Denton said in a phone interview.
The Three Mile accident was a case of a valve malfunction
compounded by human error, while Daiichi was the result a
massive earthquake and tsunami, compounded by design faults and
possible missteps. Parts of the plant are wrecked by a series
of blasts whereas Three Mile remained fully intact.
"In Japan, it's clearly the problem caused by the double
whammy of having an earthquake and then the tsunami," said
Japan accident spooks Three Mile residents [ID:nN1393585]
TIMELINE-Three Mile Island accident in 1979 [ID:nN1368129]
Q+A-Risks at each reactor at Daiichi [ID:nL3E7EH1XZ]
For more stories on Japanese quake [ID:nL3E7EB0V5]
Now 75 and retired in Knoxville, Tennessee, Denton reels
off the other differences:
--At Three Mile Island there were no injuries and only
minor amounts of radiation released into the atmosphere. At
Daiichi, at least two workers are missing and many other
workers are risking heavy doses of radiation.
--There was only one troubled reactor at Three Mile; in
Daiichi there are six.
--His team could work close to the reactor. In Japan it may
well be too dangerous to do so because of high levels of
--The power was working at Three Mile. In Japan, it was
knocked out by the earthquake and tsunami.
"Power is the lifeblood for a power plant," Denton said.
"If you've got power you can do a lot, but if you don't have
any power, the water in the reactor vessels heats up and boils
away and fuel begins to melt and that's a problem they've
gotten into now."
In Three Mile Island, "there was no interruption of
infrastructure. The biggest problem was the telephone
communications because there was such an overload of the
In fact, poor communications was one of the biggest
headaches at Three Mile Island.
There were no mobile phones in 1979, so Carter ordered a
hot line with a drop cord to Denton's work trailer, allowing
Denton to provide the President with regular updates.
"I called the president twice a day using the red
telephone," Denton said.
"At the time, the computers were not as fast and didn't
have the storage that they do now," said Denton. "The data flow
at Three Mile Island exceeded the capacity of the printer to
print the data."
Using computer printouts was the only way for Denton and
his team to get a proper readout from the big and bulky
computers in the power plant -- but having a printer go
"clickity-click" as it slowly rolled over wasn't very helpful
in such a new kind of crisis.
EVERYONE'S A CRITIC
Having coped with such events himself, Denton declined to
join those piling on to criticize the Japanese plant operator,
Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO).
"I'm reluctant to criticize other people. During Three Mile
Island, there were always pundits from a thousand miles away
saying what we should be doing, and it used to upset me that
the farther away people were from the site, the more
authoritatively they came across."
Still, he did say that a freer flow of information would
have helped as scientists outside the plant could have offered
more assistance. Clearly those on the site had gotten too busy
fighting fires, he said.
The extent of the damage at the two plants is clearly one
of the most noticeable differences.
Three Mile Island suffered no structural damage. Operators
didn't even know for two days after a hydrogen explosion in the
primary containment on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, that a blast
had even occurred
They "realized they had heard a thud ... the day of the
accident," he said. "They attributed it to a valve closing, not
unlike other occasional noises in a power plant. By Friday,
they realized they had heard an explosion the result of a
hydrogen explosion," he said.
By contrast, the Daiichi reactor suffered numerous hydrogen
explosions that partially destroyed the roof and walls, cracked
the primary containment vessels on at least two of its six
reactors, and damaged pools holding spent fuel.
THE LONG RETURN
A year after the accident, Denton went inside the reactor
containment vessel after it had been vented.
"There was surprisingly little damage from the hydrogen
explosion visible on the operating floor of the plant," he
said. "The things that were visible were a telephone in that
area seemed to have some melting on the plastic cover and
perhaps a barrel that had caved in a little but it wasn't the
scene of destruction by any means."
One of the biggest signs of how the Japanese crisis is so
much worse than the U.S. incident 32 years ago is that Denton
was able to take President Carter on a tour of the plant's
control room on the fourth and final day of the Three Mile
It is doubtful whether it will ever be safe for Japanese
Prime Minister Naoto Kan to go to Daiichi.
Indeed, Japanese engineers conceded on Friday they may have
to bury the plant in sand and concrete as a last resort to
prevent a catastrophic radiation release, the method used to
seal huge leakages from Chernobyl in 1986.
(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York.
Editing by Martin Howell and Frank McGurty)
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