Former Gov. Thornburgh: Japan Crisis ‘Unparalleled’

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — Few people from Pittsburgh know firsthand what it’s like to try to manage a potential nuclear disaster like Dick Thornburgh.

He was governor of Pennsylvania at the time of the Three Mile Island emergency.

Thornburgh had been in officer only 72 days when he was told the accident near Harrisburg had just happened.

“The first day of the accident we rather naively relied on the utility as a sole source of information,” he recalled. “Turned out they were misrepresenting facts to us and not reporting accurately and we very quickly had to cast about and get other sources.”

“It wasn’t until the third day after the accident when President Carter dispatched a nuclear engineer named Harold Denton to the site at my request,” he continued. “We had a man who could give us – he had the ability to translate nuclear jargon into plain English and that made a difference.”

Thornburgh now watches events in Japan with more than casual interest.

“I think the problem there is that they never anticipated this perfect storm of natural disasters and loss of electricity and potential radiation release,” he said. “This is unparalleled and certainly unexpected so believe me I sympathize with them greatly.”

“I’m sure there are a thousand and one things they wish they were doing differently just as we did at Three Mile Island, but the basic job is a simple one,” he said. “Bring the reactor to cold shutdown and stop any leakage of radiation.”

Even so, Thornburgh thinks the industry beyond Japan will learn from the latest nuclear crisis.

“I guess even a radioactive cloud can have a silver lining and if that’s the case, better operating and safer standards would be a by product that is positive,” he said.

  • swin

    3 different countries, with 3 different political systems, with 3 different economic systems, with 3 different technologies and you end up with 3 meltdowns that resulted from 3 different causes. Each country said it can’t happen here, each country said our plants are better and we’re smarter and neither country wanted to deliberately kill people and release radiation into the environment. And these 3 accidents occurred in just 30 years.

    Don’t you think that just maybe we are being like the Germans in the last century with their hydrogen filled airships? In other words, the idea sounds good but it is inherently flawed and will never work, despite our best efforts.

    And then there’s the nuclear waste products. That’s the stuff that will be around for hundreds of thousands of years that you’ll have to protect yourselves from all that time. Yep, the stuff that was stored at the reactors in Japan that is causing some of the problems. And why was it there? For the simple reason that in over 65 years we still have yet to figure out what to do with it.

    There is no way known to man to make a radioactive material un-radioactive. There is no way that we can even imagine how to do this.

    Oh, and by the way, we mine radioactive uranium, but it is dispersed in the environment. We then concentrate it. And our lovely reactors then turn it into plutonium. And what is plutonium?

    Well, it is an element that is not naturally found on the earth. And what are its effects. Well, sit at home next to an open window on a sunny day. See those little minute dust particles floating in the air? If just one of them is plutonium and you inhale it, you’re dead.

    And you still want to build these things?


    A person who is not a tree-hugger but who has a degree in physics.

    • Jason

      yet no human is known to have died because of inhaling or ingesting plutonium. Every source of energy that we use has risks associated with it. The best we can do is try to minimze the risk as much as possible.

      • swin

        You don’t think so? What do you think is happening in Japan right now?

      • Jason

        We don’t yet know what is happening in Japan.

    • swin

      Those plant workers in Japan are the walking dead – the modern day corporate greed equivalent of the kamikaze. And I don’t mean to denigrate them, they are heroes indeed, but they are being asked to give up their lives for man’s hubris and greed.

      But let’s just forget Japan for the moment. Ever see the photographs out of Ukraine – ever see the horrible way those workers died and ever see the grotesque birth defects that resulted afterwards. Look it up – don’t take my word for it.

  • Thornburgs not a leader

    Thornburg legacy:

    Waiting 3 full days before issuing the evacuation of pregnant women and children from the 3 Mile Island area.

  • John McNulty

    Swin has made a good point. Man’s hubris is often his downfall. I’m sure in third century Rome that no one at the time ever thought that their empire would fail, that control over the region by the powers that be would end, that scientific and technical ability would be rolled back. How can we assume that humans will always have the technical and political ability to maintain these toxic spent fuel rods for millenia! For a little energy now, we are willing to hold future generations hostage for ever. Now that’s intelligence!

  • swin

    Some other points. It cost over $100 million to decommission the Shippingport Atomic Power Station and that DID NOT include removal or disposal of the nuclear fuel waste. Shippingport was the first commercial nuclear power plant and it was a real baby, having an output measured in mere kilowatts. Nuclear plants today are measured in megawatts. There are over 100 nuclear reactors today producing power. At Shippingport’s prices, it would cost at least $100 billion to decommission these plants, and that’s at 1986 dollars. The total cost would probably be closer to $1 trillion. And that still does not include the cost of disposing of the waste and keeping it secure for hundreds of thousands of years.

    Oh, and these plants WILL have to be decommissioned. When nuclear power plants were first built, it was assumed they would have a life expectancy of 50-60 years. That turned out to be wrong by about half.. It turned out that the exposure to radiation caused a significant deterioration in the materials that the plant was constructed of. All our reactors are nearing the end of their life. The day is soon coming when we as a society will have to pay nearly a trillion dollars for power – not for our present use, but for power that was used in the past.

    That’s the legacy of nuclear power.

    And one final question – does your car get more or less reliable as it ages?

    And you still want to build these things?


    Someone who knows physics.

    More coming

  • swin

    Two more points for those of you who think nuclear power is safe and cheap.

    1. In the 1950’s, the Atomic Energy Commission was formed and given the task of encouraging the peaceful use of the atom. Since then the government (that’s you, the taxpayer) pays the cost of mining uranium, shipping it, enriching it, and ,not that it’s even possible, disposing of it. The amount of the cost passed on the the local utility company operating the nuclear plant – practically zero. And this arrangement continues to this day.

    So, if you owned an electric power company, you have two choices. Build a coal-fired plant and pay yourself for 60 years worth of coal to run your plant, or build a nuclear plant and get 60 years worth of fuel for free. What would your choice be?

    2. Ever hear of the Price-Anderson Act? Didn’t think so. In the 1950’s when the idea of a nuclear powered electric plant was first dreamed up, no insurance company on the planet would even touch it as a risk and refused to include such coverage in ANY of their policies – home, life, auto, etc. you name it. The electric companies balked at the government’s idea of using reactors, figuring they would be buried in any lawsuit resulting from an accident. So can you guess what the government did? You got it. They exempted both the insurance and utility companies from any liability if there is an accident. The Price-Anderson Act makes the taxpayer responsible for all such claims. Don’t believe me, look it up. Oh, did I mention that the government is already $14 trillion in debt.

    Oh, and by the way, who do you think paid for the clean-up at Three Mile Island? Well, the government decided that the damage was too expensive and would put General Public Utilities out of business, soooo – the taxpayers paid for the clean-up.

    And you still want to build these things?


    A person who has studied nuclear physics.

    • Jason

      You keep saying “you still want to biuld these things.” We haven’t build one in over 30 years and haven’t been hearing much ‘real talk’ about it.

      • swin

        It’s been 30 years since Three Mile Island, Is that how long it takes to forget?

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