The quality of information provided to the public in the event of a
nuclear plant accident has a significant bearing on the capacity of
people to respond to the accident, on their mental health, and on their
willingness to accept guidance from responsible public officials.
Before the accident, Met Ed had consistently asserted the overall
safety of the plant, although the company had made information
concerning difficulties at TMI-2 public in weekly press releases. This
information was not pursued, and often not understood, by the local news
media in the area; and the local news media generally failed to publish
or broadcast investigative stories on the safety of the plant.
Neither Met Ed nor the NRC had specific plans for providing accident
information to the public and the news media.
During the accident, official sources of information were often
confused or ignorant of the facts. News media coverage often reflected
this confusion and ignorance.
Met Ed's handling of information during the first 3 days of the
accident resulted in loss of its credibility as an information source
with state and local officials, as well as with the news media. Part of
the problem was that the utility was slow to confirm "pessimistic" news
about the accident.
In accordance with an informal agreement worked out between Governor
Thornburgh and the White House, the release of information was
centralized beginning on the third day of the accident. Under the
agreement, Harold Denton of the NEC would issue all statements from the
site on plant status; the Governor's office would be the sole source of
comment on protective action and evacuation; and the White House would
coordinate comment on the federal emergency relief effort. This
agreement limited the number of sources available to the news media and
while it brought some order out of the chaos in public information, it
raised two problems. First, information on off-site radiation releases
was not centralized in any source so that it would be readily available
to the news media and the public; and second, the plan provided no
specific public information role for the utility.
During the first days of the accident, B&W made a conscious decision
not to comment on the accident, even when company officials believed
that misinformation was being made available to the public by others.
The reporters who covered the accident had widely divergent skills and
backgrounds. Many had no scientific background. Because too few
technical briefers were supplied by NRC and the utility, and because
many reporters were unfamiliar with the technology and the limits of
scientific knowledge, they had difficulty understanding fully the
information that was given to them. In turn, the news media had
difficulty presenting this information to the public in a form that
would be understandable.
This difficulty was particularly acute in the reporting of information
on radiation releases.
They also experienced difficulty interpreting language expressing the
probability of such events as a meltdown or a hydrogen explosion; this
was made even more difficult when the sources of information were
themselves uncertain about the probabilities.
The impression exists that in news coverage of the accident, the news
media presented a more alarming than reassuring view of events. Without
attempting to assess how alarming the accident may ±n fact have been, an
analysis of the sources quoted in the news media reveals, overall, a
larger proportion of reassuring than alarming statements in the coverage
concerning the status of the accident. In choosing quotations from both
official and unofficial sources, the news media did not present only
"alarming" views, but rather views on both sides of issues related to
10. A qualitative survey of 42 newspapers from around the country showed
that the vast majority covered the accident in much the same way as the
major suppliers of news, such as the wire services, the broadcast
networks. The New York Times, and The
Post. A few newspapers, however, did present a more frightening and
misleading impression of the accident. This impression was created
through headlines and graphics, and in the selection of material to