It’s been forty years since the infamous Three Mile Island accident, an incident made famous by the confusion and panic it spawned in its wake. But while the incident is remembered for the fear it stoked about nuclear energy, it also set the stage for the US nuclear industry to become the safest in the world. To this day, the Three Mile Island accident impacts the nuclear industry and provides valuable lessons about incident response and communication.


The Three Mile Island accident is well-known world-wide. After a partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a series of miscommunications between state and federal agencies, as well as conflicting information doled out to the public led to mass confusion and exodus of residents from the surrounding area. The actual impact of the accident was minimal—nobody died, there was no marked impact on human health nor on the environment. The accident, environmental policy writer Michael Shellenberger argues, this event was actually a positive for the nuclear industry because it set a magnifying glass on it to become ultra-safe globally. Following the accident, the nuclear industry made important changes regarding emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering and other areas of power plant operations. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) regulations and oversights were strengthened, as well. In fact, this event alone was the beginning of the NRC and U.S reactor safety as we know it today.


At the same time, the Three Mile Island accident called attention to – and continues to call attention to – the importance of strong communications during incident notification and response in the nuclear industry. Following the incident, miscommunications between state and federal officials and conflicting orders about evacuation led to widespread fear and even voluntary (and not necessary) evacuations. The chaotic aftermath of the accident sowed public fear and distrust in the industry.


As evident, the Three Mile Island accident shaped nuclear safety in the U.S and it called into focus the importance of clear, efficient communications during an incident. As the nuclear industry continues to focus on safety, it is key that they use modern technologies, and not fall into traps – like depending on aging infrastructure that can lead to miscommunication and mistrust again. Plants must keep current with technology to ensure that accidents don’t take place but that communication failures also do not plague the industry as well.


Secure communication platforms that allow for multi-channel communications that enable real-time notification acknowledgement and visual tracking to meet regulatory timeframes are a must. The Three Miles Island accident showed us that promptness and clarity of information are absolutely critical during an incident. Clunky and outdated technologies that lack the ability to ensure and confirm receipt and often require manual labour and different processes depending on the technology—such as faxing, phone calls, or emails—simply don’t cut it anymore.


Modern technological advancements have made it possible to streamline communications during an incident. Using secure communications platforms like Vaporstream, the nuclear industry can now automate critical notifications and simultaneously send them through secure message, SMS and email, and have them reach phones, tablets, laptops, and desktops instantaneously. This ensures that the relevant information reaches the right person over their preferred communication method and device. It eliminates the need for manual messaging, freeing up personnel to focus on important matters while ensuring everyone stays informed. Vaporstream also offers audio and visual alerts to express messages’ urgency and ensures delivery and read receipts.


The Three Mile Island accident offers important lessons about safety and clear communications. In the last forty years, the U.S nuclear industry has had an outstanding record on safety. Incorporating tools like Vaporstream into its incident notification and response coordination will make the industry even stronger.


To learn about how Vaporstream can help you efficiently communicate during a nuclear incident download our solution brief here.

Contributor: Kristi Perdue Hinkle