How Much of a Difference is there between Three Mile Island and the Fukushima Disaster?

In March/April 1979, I was part of a field team working for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in Pennsylvania gathering information on the emergency response effort in the area around the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power station as a result of the accident that occurred there.

The elevation of the Fukushima Daishi incident to a level 5 (out of 7) on the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEM) International Nuclear Event Scale puts it on a par with TMI and the Windscale Fire that occurred in England in 1957.  There are only two incidents that have ranked higher in the IAEA scale:  Chernobyl and Kyshtym, both of which occurred in the Soviet Union and both of which involved release of large volumes of radioactive particulates.  As of March 18, this has not happened in Japan so the parallel ranking to TMI is probably justified.

I think there are also parallels between the TMI incident and what is currently happening at the Fukushima Daiichireactor complex in Japan. Specifically, I think it is valid to compare how officials communicate(ed) with the public about the nature of the emergency, what is being done, and most important, what the public needs to do to ensure their own safety is critical to ensuring a good outcome.

Official pronouncements, reassurances, or instructions are simply one factor among many competing for attention in the noise surrounding an emergency. If these messages are inconsistent, unclear, or do not seem to fit with the rest of what the at-risk population is experiencing, they will likely be ignored.  Worse, such messages can undermine the credibility of all future communications form that source.

Ineffective communication with the affected public in the TMI incident cost state and federal authorities’ credibility in the short term and caused them to lose control of the situation.  So far, this does not appear to be happening in Japan. The specific difference I am focusing on is the evacuation of the population in the area around each of the power plants.

“Of the thirty six ways to escape disaster, running away is best.” Chinese proverb

During TMI, there were on-again, off-again messages about evacuation. Ultimately Governor Thornburg of Pennsylvania issued an advisory that pregnant women and families with preschool children should leave the area. In contrast, the Japanese, despite severe damage to their transportation infrastructure have managed to evacuate around 200,000 people.

Getting away from danger is a natural human reaction. During the TMI affair, roughly a quarter of the population within 20 miles of the plant simply left on their own.  Communities close to the plant were virtually empty. This occurred despite the fact (or perhaps because of it) that no evacuation order had been given. It became increasingly clear as to nearly everyone in the vicinity of TMI that no one in authority really understood the situation.  Further, no action was being taken to involve the public in their own protection.

A survey done in the weeks immediately following the Three Mile Island accident looked at the credibility of government officials in the aftermath of the incident. One question asked:  “Do you feel the information you were getting from state and federal officials during the TMI crisis was truthful?”  Only 21% of respondents in the TMI area answered yes.  However, mothers of young children in the same area found that 56% felt they had gotten truthful information. What accounts for the difference?  Perhaps it lies in the fact that the only clear and concise instructions given to the public by authorities during the incident were for pregnant women and families with pre-school children to evacuate.

My cable provider carries Japanese newscasts (in English translation) so I’ve been able to watch quite a few of their briefings. From the outside, it looks to me as though Japanese officials are trying very hard to avoid obfuscation and to keep their people in the loop.  I’ve been especially impressed with their willingness to use those three magic words:  “I don’t know.”

The approach used by authorities in the TMI case clearly did not  engender public confidence.  Time will tell if the more open approach of the Japanese will be any more successful.  So far, it looks like it is working.


Author: Gary Hilbert, Emergency Management Specialist