The nuclear nightmare that almost took out the East Coast

The 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown in central Pennsylvania was and remains the worst accident of its kind in the United States, but, as a new documentary shows, it could have been so much worse.

In the four-part Netflix docuseries “Meltdown: Three Mile Island,” which debuted Wednesday, May 4, Rick Parks — a former leading engineer at the facility — reveals how cover-ups, falsifications of safety tests and downright dangerous corner-cutting caused the terrifying nuclear event and could have potentially triggered a second, bigger one that would have affected a huge chunk of the Eastern Seaboard.

What Parks found risked America being on “the verge of an apocalypse” capable of triggering “a meltdown that could take out Philadelphia, New York City and Washington, DC,” Tom Devine, of the watchdog group Government Accountability Project, says in the doc.

The Three Mile Island nuclear disaster is the worst ever on American soil, but things could have become much worse.

Catastrophic cleanup

The partial meltdown — caused by a valve malfunction — occurred on March 28, 1979, and was rated a level five out of seven on the international nuclear event scale as an “accident with wider consequences.”

But, from the beginning, the plant’s operators and government officials tried to downplay the disaster, minimizing the accident’s severity and refusing to mandate an evacuation of the region.

For Parks, a former Navy man and a longtime believer in nuclear energy, the accident immediately put the industry’s future “into doubt,” he says in the documentary. But things became even more distressing when he saw how the cleanup effort, which was being run by industry powerhouse Bechtel Corp., was unfolding.

“There became an impetus on the political side and in the industrial side to push the cleanup faster … they would take every shortcut they possibly could,” Parks says on screen.

Engineer Rick Parks saw trouble on Three Mile Island, but speaking out about it was one of the biggest risks he ever took.

Most worrisome was that higher-ups wanted to use a polar crane — a device used to hoist heavy and hazardous materials — to yank roughly 1,000 pounds of nuclear wreckage out of the broken-down reactor’s core. To Parks, this idea sounded frightening, as the crane had been present at Three Mile Island at the time of the meltdown and was likely subject to severe damage.

Using it, Parks thought, could inadvertently cause a Chernobyl-like meltdown.

“If [the crane] broke, we would not be able to keep the core covered. We would never regain entry to that reactor building in any of our lifetimes because the radiation levels escaping would be horrendous. You would be evacuating eastern Pennsylvania all the way down to Washington, DC,” Parks says in the doc, adding that 2 million people lived within a 50-mile radius of the facility at the time.

“We had the potential for killing ’em. Period.”

An unidentified technician for Metropolitan Edison Power Company uses a long sensitive meter to measure the radiation inside the Three Mile Island plant.
Bettmann Archive
The top portion of Reactor 1 at the Three Mile Island plant.
Popperfoto via Getty Images

Although Parks and colleague Larry King took their concerns up with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, showing all the hazards they found and pleading for a safety review, the government agency sided with Bechtel.

“I was satisfied that that crane was safe enough,” says Lake Barrett, NRC director of the island’s cleanup, explaining that competition over cleanup plans caused “dramas and soap operas.”

Rick Parks and fellow engineers found that dangers in the island’s cleanup procedure could have caused a catastrophe, he says.

King then became suspicious of the NRC and its allegiances to Bechtel, saying in the doc that “having the NRC watch nuclear plants is like having a fox watch the henhouse.” He refused to sign off on authorizing the crane’s use and was fired shortly after, according to Parks, who then “knew [his] days were numbered” too.

Parks was right. Before leaving for work one morning, Parks says he noticed a bag of marijuana was planted inside his car. After disposing of it at home, he claimed to be randomly searched for the first time upon arriving to work that day.

“That’s the way organizations react to whistleblowers; they’re a threat and they have to be destroyed,” Devine says.

Harassed whistleblower

Engineer Rick Parks knew that chaos at Three Mile Island wasn’t over after the meltdown. He risked his life to expose it.

That inspired Parks to reach out to the Government Accountability Project in early 1983. He was initially too frightened to identify himself, or even mention the facility by name, but he mustered his courage as the plan to use the crane loomed closer. Parks and his closest colleagues drafted an affidavit filled with their findings.

In March of that year, right after writing the affidavit, Parks and his children came home to find their apartment had been broken into. He says nothing was out of place except that a closet looked tossed, which happened to be where he typically kept all his paperwork.

“It was patently obvious the only thing they were interested in was documentation,” Park says, adding that the documents in question weren’t taken because they had been stored somewhere else in his home. But, “that scared me beyond reason for my family’s life after my apartment was broken into. I took that as a message that ‘Your sons are vulnerable and we will get you through them.’”

Rick Parks and other engineers said they were leaned on in nefarious ways to keep quiet about their worries on Three Mile Island.

He adds, “And that made me an enemy for life, because you don’t threaten my sons … I knew that they were out for blood and weren’t gonna stop.”

The anger galvanized Parks, and later that same month, he held a televised press conference detailing his knowledge of the flawed practices at the plant. Meanwhile, a member of GAP submitted his affidavit to the NRC, just hours before the crane was slated for use.

“I didn’t have a choice [to go public],” Park says on screen. “If that crane fell and cost the life of anybody or resulted in an uncontrolled exposure to the general public, I could never look in the mirror again.”

The unsuspecting public and surrounding residents could have been exposed to lethal radiation from the plant’s haphazard cleanup, Parks warned.

This time, perhaps due to public pressure, NRC sided with Parks and a congressional investigation was ordered for TMI. “The amount of wrongdoing and misconduct that came out through the hearing process was extraordinary,” Joanne Doroshow, lead counsel for the advocacy group TMI Alert, says in the documentary.

It was found that prior to the facility’s opening, safety data had been falsified and documents were destroyed. In addition, system flaws and cover-ups immediately after the meltdown of 1979 had left TMI mere minutes from an even worse crisis.

Investigated cover-ups in the control room led to the long-term dangers on Three Mile Island, legal experts say.

That day, control room crews released hydrogen gas into the containment area, which “meant that the core was melting and there could be a significant amount of radiation that is released,” she says in the doc.

It made the decision not to evacuate the community even more devastating, she explains.

“The danger was potentially lethal amounts of radiation the first day, while children were going to school, while people were tending to their farms,” Doroshow says. “These peoples’ lives were in peril and nobody told them … this was a severe crisis just minutes from hundreds of thousands of people dying, the entire area of central Pennsylvania being permanently contaminated by radiation.”

Parks wasn’t alone with his worries. Townspeople rebelled against nuclear energy after living through Three Mile Island.

Eventually, in 1985, the crane was finally used for cleanup — with better controls in place, 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 reassignment out of TMI after the proceedings — says otherwise.

“I’d never heard this, that he was run out of the industry or anything like that,” he says in the documentary.

President Jimmy Carter visited Three Mile Island after the partial meltdown.

That same year, TMI was authorized to reopen an unaffected plant under the same company. The island closed for good in 2019.

“What the industry learned from this is that you can lie, cheat, falsify documents, intimidate and harass workers, be convicted of a crime and you can get a license to operate a nuclear reactor,” Doroshow says.