40 Years Since Three Mile Island: My Own Personal Nuclear Disaster

Yesterday marked the 40th anniversary of the Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown. This was the most significant nuclear accident in US history. Fun Fact: I lived only 17 miles downwind from there. I was five months old. In case you were wondering where I got my superpowers, now you know.

I was too young to remember what happened, but growing up, I heard about it all the time. For south-central Pennsylvania, Three Mile Island put us on the map. The only other thing we are well-known for is our vast Amish population.

This is a leadership blog

So, lets start by examining the leadership response to this accident. The following account was documented in a Washington Post article on the tenth anniversary of the accident:

On Wednesday, March 28, hours after the core had collapsed into rubble, Lt. Gov. William W. Scranton appeared at a news briefing to say that Metropolitan Edison, the plant’s owner, had assured the state that “everything is under control.”

By afternoon, Scranton had altered his statement. The situation, he said, was “more complex than the company first led us to believe.”

On Friday, Governor Dick Thornburgh, on the advice of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, advised pregnant women and pre-school age children (that was me) within a 20-mile radius to evacuate. I can only imagine the pandemonium that was going on. My Mom packed up my 3-year-old brother and me, then evacuated the house, heading upwind to York County where my grandparents lived.

On Sunday, President Jimmy Carter personally visited the site of the accident and toured the control room.

The China Syndrome

So, one other fun fact. The late 1970’s was the peak of anti-nuclear sentiment in the country. Just 12 days before the incident, a major blockbuster movie was released, The China Syndrome, starring Jack Lemmon, Jane Fonda, and Michael Douglas.

The movie was about a nuclear power plant meltdown. At one point in the story, a nuclear adviser explained to Jane Fonda’s character that an explosion at the plant “could render an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.”

Let that sink in for a moment. This is the movie that everyone is watching at the theaters. A week later, it starts unfolding for real for the only time in US history. Unreal is more like it.

What can we learn from this?

In 40 years, we haven’t had another nuclear accident this bad, so as a country that manages nuclear power, we must have figured something out. As technology leaders, we get involved in outages and incidents all the time. I’m pretty sure, no matter how bad I mess up at work, there is nothing I can do that will cause 94-year-old Jimmy Carter to come over and see what’s going on. That’s comforting.

Then, there’s escalation. This one went from plant supervisor, to station manager, to lieutenant governor, to governor, to president. Escalation is still a factor in every incident. Did they escalate too fast or too slow? It’s always easy to judge after the incident, but hard to judge in real-time. No boss likes to be surprised. I do my best to keep my boss well-informed when things are going awry. I’d rather him hear about it from me than someone else, even if it ends up being nothing.

The misinformation

Today, we take telecommunications for granted. In 1979, the phone lines jammed up badly, which significantly contributed to poor and delayed communications through the ensuing days.

It is usually bad when you start off saying everything is okay, to later reveal that it’s not. It hurts credibility and looks like you are trying to hide bad news. Even if intentions are good, and you are trying not to cause a panic, there’s blow-back when the truth comes out. Three Mile Island is universally believed to be both a horrible accident and a leadership failure. Books have been written analyzing the accident and all of the lessons learned. I won’t get into all of that here.

When you are managing your own technology incidents and accidents, start off by communicating the worst-case scenario, keep your poise, and hopefully improve the news going forward from there. Do your best to keep the updates flowing regularly. Three Mile Island communications were painfully slow, and that made everyone involved crazy, frustrated, and desperate.

User experience saves lives

Sometimes when we design technology, we focus on the functionality needed, but neglect the user experience. We think user experience is “nice to have.” In the case of Three Mile Island, lack of a good user experience was the technical root cause of the accident. The user interface of the control system was ambiguous and hard for the operators to interpret. Many hours passed while operators were desperately trying to diagnose the issue at hand. It wasn’t until a shift change occurred that fresh eyes were able to understand what was really going on, and by then the major damage was done.

A good user experience allows humans to operate technology intuitively and instinctively. This discipline is more about human behavior than technical specifications. This skill is a critical component of every technology product team and shouldn’t be overlooked. Sure, UX is hot right now, but it was just as necessary in 1979.

Looking back and looking forward

The Three Mile Island accident was huge. Most don’t have the personal attachment to it like I do. I live in Minnesota now, but still fly home to Pennsylvania occasionally. When I fly into Harrisburg airport, the final approach tilts the plane so I end up looking directly down into the cooling towers of Three Mile Island. I get a chill down my spine every time.

I imagine none of my readers will ever be involved in an incident this severe, but we should always take the time to learn from history, so we do not repeat it ourselves.

Read this article on my blog site: https://zachonleadership.com/40-years-since-three-mile-island-my-own-personal-nuclear-disaster/

Technology Leader at CHS. Passionate about leadership and innovation. Posts are my own.