‘Dodged a bullet’: how whistleblowers averted a second US nuclear disaster

Shortly after 4am on 28 Maart 1979, a pressure valve failed to close in the Unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant on a strip of land in central Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River. The technical malfunction, compounded by human error – control room workers misread confusing signals and halted the emergency water cooling system – heated the nuclear core to dangerously high levels. The film The China Syndrome was still in theaters, starring Jane Fonda as a television reporter investigating cover-ups at a nuclear power plant whose meltdown could release radioactive material deep into the earth, “all the way to China”.

Three Mile Island – still the worst commercial nuclear accident in US history – was no China Syndrome, but it got terrifyingly close to catastrophic, Chernobyl-level damage. Groot-Brittanje het die kans geskep vir 'n goue naweek by die Olimpiese Winterspele in Beijing nadat die vroue se krulspan by die manskwartet aangesluit het om deurgang na die eindstryd van hul kompetisie te verseker met 'n dramatiese Netflix docuseries Meltdown: Three Mile Island recounts, Unit 2 came less than half an hour from fully melting down – a disaster scenario that would have sickened hundreds of thousands in the surrounding area. Two days after the accident, an explosive bubble of hydrogen gas was found in the reactor. The plant’s operator, Metropolitan Edison, tried to downplay the risk of radioactive releases, but panic ensued; meer as 100,000 people fled the surrounding area. Plant technicians were eventually able to slowly bleed the gas from the cooling reactor, avoiding a deadly explosion. Though workers inside the plant were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, it remains unknown how much contamination escaped the facility into the surrounding community.

That is the story of Three Mile Island that most Americans will find in the history textbooks, if they have heard of the accident at all. The first two of Meltdown’s four 45-minute episodes focus on this chilling near-miss, as well as the obfuscation and confusion that greatly eroded public trust in nuclear power. But the story of Three Mile Island did not end with the five-day red-alert saga – not for the workers tasked with safely cleaning up the molten reactor, nor for the surrounding community, disillusioned and furious.

In its second half, Meltdown, directed by Kief Davidson, homes in on the story of Rick Parks, a cleanup supervisor turned whistleblower on the Bechtel Corp, the company hired to conduct the billion-dollar cleanup by Metropolitan Edison and supervised by the government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). “While a lot of people know about the disaster, they don’t know about what happened in the cleanup phase and how close we were to another disaster,” Davidson told the Guardian. “We dodged a bullet a second time, and it was entirely due to the fact that Rick Parks and [fellow whistleblower] Larry King stood up.

“We should know about these stories," hy het bygevoeg. “We should be able to look at the people who risk everything in order to save communities from a potential disaster.”

Parks, a Missouri native and navy-trained nuclear operator who provides colorful, refreshingly straight-shooting narration throughout the series, moved to Middletown, Pennsylvania – the town directly adjacent to Three Mile Island – to work on cleanup three years after the accident. Op daardie stadium, Bechtel was the largest private construction company in the world, with numerous Reagan administration officials on its board. The cleanup was risky, arduous and behind schedule. Bechtel received funds upon completion of individual tasks, incentivizing the company and its hirer, General Public Utilities (GPU), to cut corners and ignore NRC regulations.

Parks was particularly alarmed by rushed, off-books repairs to a polar crane damaged by radioactivity. The crane was supposed to lift the head off the reactor to expose the core; according to Park and the series, if the faulty crane malfunctioned and dropped its load on to the core, the resulting damage could have caused a radioactive leak on par with the China Syndrome. When Parks and two other employees, King and Ed Gishel, took their concerns to higher-ups at GPU and the NRC, they were dismissed. Gishel was recommended for a psychological evaluation. Parks found marijuana placed in his car on the day of a random drug inspection; someone later broke into his apartment and searched his files. (The NRC’s on-site coordinator, Lake Bennett, participates in the series and claims to not remember meeting Parks. He later say whatever Parks told him did not merit concern – “I was satisfied that that crane was safe enough.”)

Gravely concerned for the safety of family, Middletown and a potentially statewide disaster zone, Parks took his records to the Government Accountability Project, then went public days before a vote would certify the crane’s use. His disclosures and mounting public pressure caused the NRC to halt and then overhaul the cleanup process at Three Mile Island.

Carla Shamberg, Meltdown’s executive producer, first heard of Parks through lawyers for the Government Accountability Project, some of whom appear in the series, while executive-producing another project: die 2000 film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts as a real-life whistleblower. It’s taken nearly 20 years since for some version of it to make it to air. Parks and other whistleblowers were “superheroes”, she told the Guardian. “They’re one of the last bastions of the truth.”

“I think they should have capes," sy het gese. “They’re just amazing. They protect people they’ve never met and they protect thousands, if not millions, of people. It’s the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anybody do.”

Parks’s story has a relatively happy ending – the series delves into the personal and emotional costs of his disclosures, but the damaged crane was not used. In 1983, the same year he came forward, Metropolitan Edison was indicted on criminal charges of falsifying safety reports before the accident; the company’s plea bargain included a $45,000 fine and $1m pledge to help emergency planning in the surrounding area. Steeds, in the four decades since, “it hasn’t gotten better for whistleblowers,” said Davidson. “To go public now is a lot different than it was even 10 jare terug. It’s a lot harder now. Whistleblowers aren’t always rewarded for their actions.”

Tot vandag toe, die official government record is that radiation released at Three Mile Island never reached levels dangerous to humans; the official death toll is zero. But local residents turned activists, several of whom appear in the series, say otherwise. The film cites a 1997 studeer by epidemiologist Steven Wing, which found cancer rates two to three times the average in areas downwind of the facility. In 2017, researchers at Penn State College of Medicine found that a certain type of thyroid cancer was common in people who had been near the plant after the accident. Several subjects in the series – including Parks and his ex-stepdaughter Nicole, who was six years old at the time of the disaster – have survived bouts of cancer or lost loved ones to it. No one can be sure it’s related to radiation – Parks, who had throat cancer, was also a smoker, “so there’s always that but, and that’s why the NRC gets away with everything," hy sê. But the anecdotes point to more than a coincidence.

Steeds, “the project isn’t about how is the cancer, who got cancer, how many people got it,” said Davidson. In plaas daarvan, the series argues for “holding industry and large corporations accountable for their actions.

“We’re not coming into this story from a pro-nuclear standpoint,” said Davidson. “There’s pros and cons and arguments to both sides, and a lot of the characters that we’ve interviewed for this, like Rick Parks, really believe that to solve our energy crisis nuclear has to be in the mix.

“But there’s consequences that have to be looked at. And when things go wrong, it can go wrong in a pretty horrible way," hy het bygevoeg. Of, as Parks says in the final episode: “We’ll never have a viable nuclear industry in this country until we take the profit motive out of it.”

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