We’re going to take the next few weeks to discuss managing an environmental crisis. As senior managers in your company, you may be called upon on short notice to deal with the local press or to manage a clean-up when an environmental accident by your company impacts the local neighborhood. I will refer to some personal incidents in which I was either involved with or impacted by the event.
The first of these is the near-catastrophic events of March 28, 1979, at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Middletown, Pa., less than 10 miles from where I lived at the time. The management of this crisis eventually went all the way to President Carter, who visited the site on Sunday, April 1, five days after the event.
However, I want to discuss the role my next-door neighbor, John Herbein, played in these events. Mr. Herbein was the VP for generation for the plant's owner, Metropolitan Edison.
To give you some background of the events at that time, we’ll review a brief sequence of the accident as they happened. At 4 a.m. on the morning of Wednesday, March 28, operators doing some routine maintenance accidentally blocked the flow of cooling water to the reactor of unit 2. Within 10 seconds, a series of events took place that led to a significant release of radiation and a complete meltdown of the reactor core. By 9 a.m., the entire core had melted and had dropped to the bottom of the 5-inch-thick steel containment vessel, which miraculously held. At 1:50 p.m., there was a hydrogen explosion also contained by the containment vessel. None of these events were known at the time. Instead, there was a lot of misinformation being generated, which resulted in a general panic that lasted until Sunday, April 1.
On Thursday, Mr. Herbein was ordered to the plant as part of the crisis-management team. As the senior officer at the site, he became the company’s spokesman to the press. What happened after that pretty much ended Mr. Herbein’s career and caused a great deal of public distrust of his company and the entire nuclear-power industry.