The 1979 Three Mile Island meltdown in central Pennsylvania was and remains the worst accident of its kind in the United States, but it could have been a lot worse, a new documentary shows.
In the four-part Netflix docu-series Meltdown: Three Mile Island, which debuted Wednesday, May 4, Rick Parks — a former chief engineer at the facility — reveals how cover-ups, falsifying safety tests and causing downright dangerous rough edges became the horrific nuclear event and could have possibly triggered a second, larger one that would have affected a vast swath of the East Coast.
What Parks found risked America being “on the brink of an apocalypse” that “could trigger a meltdown that could wipe out Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, DC,” says Tom Devine of the government accountability project monitoring group in the document.
The partial meltdown – caused by a valve malfunction – occurred on March 28, 1979 and was rated a five out of seven on the international scale for “major consequential accidents”.
But from the start, plant operators and government officials tried to downplay the disaster, downplaying the seriousness of the accident and refusing to order an evacuation of the area.
For Parks, a former Navy man and longtime supporter of nuclear power, the accident immediately “put in doubt” the future of the industry, he says in the documentary. But things got even more troubling as he watched the cleanup unfold, led by industry leader Bechtel Corp. were carried out.
“There was an impetus on the political and industrial side to speed up the cleanup…they would take every shortcut they could,” Parks says onscreen.
Of most concern, supervisors planned to use a polar crane — a device used to lift heavy and hazardous materials — to haul about 1,000 pounds of nuclear debris from the core of the broken reactor. To Parks, this idea sounded scary, since the crane was in place on Three Mile Island at the time of the meltdown and was likely facing severe damage.
Using it, Parks thought, could inadvertently cause a Chernobyl-type meltdown.
“If [the crane] broke, we couldn’t keep the core covered. We would not be allowed access to that reactor building again in our lifetime because the radiation levels escaping would be appalling. They would evacuate eastern Pennsylvania all the way down to Washington, DC,” Parks says in the document, adding that 2 million people lived within a 50-mile radius of the facility at the time.
“We had the potential to kill them. Period.”
Although Parks and his colleague Larry King raised their concerns with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, detailing any hazards they found and requesting a safety clearance, the government agency sided with Bechtel.
“I was confident that this crane was safe enough,” says Lake Barrett, NRC director of island cleaning, explaining that competition over cleaning schedules caused “drama and soap operas.”
King then became suspicious of the NRC and its allegiances to Bechtel, saying in the document that “having the NRC watch nuclear plants is like having a fox guarding the chicken coop.” He refused to authorize the crane’s use and was fired shortly thereafter, according to Parks, who “knew it at the time.” [his] Days were numbered” too.
Parks was right. Before driving to work one morning, Parks noticed that a bag of marijuana had been planted in his car. After disposing of it at home, he said he was first indiscriminately searched that day when he got to work.
“How organizations respond to whistleblowers; They are a threat and must be destroyed,” says Devine.
This inspired Parks to contact the Government Accountability Project in early 1983. At first he was too afraid to identify himself or even to name the facility, but he plucked up courage as the plan to use the crane drew near. Parks and his closest colleagues wrote an affidavit with their findings.
In March of that year, right after he wrote the affidavit, Parks and his children came home to find their home had been broken into. He says nothing was out of place, except that a closet where he usually kept all his papers looked cluttered.
“It was obvious that they were only interested in documentation,” says Park, adding that the documents in question were not taken because they were kept elsewhere in his home. But “this made me incredibly scared for my family’s life after my home was broken into. I took that as a message that ‘Your sons are vulnerable and we will get you through them.’”
He adds, “And that made me a lifelong enemy because you don’t threaten my sons … I knew they were out for blood and they weren’t going to stop.”
The anger threw Parks into turmoil, and later that same month he held a televised press conference detailing his knowledge of the faulty practices at the facility. Meanwhile, a member of GAP submitted his affidavit to the NRC just hours before the crane was due to go into action.
“I had no choice [to go public]’ Park says on-screen. “If this crane falls and takes someone’s life or results in uncontrolled exposure to the public, I could never look in the mirror again.”
This time, perhaps due to public pressure, NRC sided with Parks and a congressional investigation was ordered into TMI. “The amount of wrongdoing and wrongdoing that was brought to light through the hearing process was extraordinary,” says Joanne Doroshow, lead counsel for advocacy group TMI Alert, in the documentary.
It was determined that security data had been falsified and documents destroyed before the facility opened. Furthermore, system failures and cover-ups immediately following the 1979 meltdown had TMI mere minutes from an even worse crisis.
That day, control room crews released hydrogen gas into the containment area, which “meant the core melted and potentially released a significant amount of radiation,” she says in the document.
It made the decision not to evacuate the community even more devastating, she explains.
“The danger was potentially lethal levels of radiation on the first day, while kids went to school, while people tended their farms,” says Doroshow. “These people’s lives were in danger and no one told them… This was a major crisis just minutes after hundreds of thousands of people died and the entire area of central Pennsylvania was permanently contaminated by radiation.”
Finally, in 1985, the crane was finally used for cleanup – with better controls thanks to Parks – but it still “froze” on multiple occasions, Devine says.
Parks’ actions soon after cost him his job at the facility, he says, but Barrett — who asked for a transfer from TMI after the trial — says otherwise.
“I had never heard of him being kicked out of the industry or anything like that,” he says in the documentary.
That same year, TMI was authorized to reopen an unaffected plant under the same company. The island closed permanently in 2019.
“The industry has learned that you can lie, cheat, falsify documents, intimidate and harass workers, be convicted of a crime and get a license to operate a nuclear reactor,” says Doroshow.