The Netflix docuseries Meltdown: Three Mile Island, revisits a 1979 nuclear accident and the cut corners that could have resulted in a disaster years later
Three Mile Island – still the worst commercial nuclear accident in US history – was no China Syndrome, but it got terrifyingly close to catastrophic, Chernobyl-level damage. As the Netflix docuseries Meltdown: Three Mile Island recounts, Unit 2 came less than half an hour from fully melting down – a disaster scenario that would have sickened hundreds of thousands in the surrounding area. Two days after the accident, an explosive bubble of hydrogen gas was found in the reactor. The plant’s operator, Metropolitan Edison, tried to downplay the risk of radioactive releases, but panic ensued; more than 100,000 people fled the surrounding area. Plant technicians were eventually able to slowly bleed the gas from the cooling reactor, avoiding a deadly explosion. Though workers inside the plant were exposed to dangerous levels of radiation, it remains unknown how much contamination escaped the facility into the surrounding community.
That is the story of Three Mile Island that most Americans will find in the history textbooks, if they have heard of the accident at all. The first two of Meltdown’s four 45-minute episodes focus on this chilling near-miss, as well as the obfuscation and confusion that greatly eroded public trust in nuclear power. But the story of Three Mile Island did not end with the five-day red-alert saga – not for the workers tasked with safely cleaning up the molten reactor, nor for the surrounding community, disillusioned and furious.
In its second half, Meltdown, directed by Kief Davidson, homes in on the story of Rick Parks, a cleanup supervisor turned whistleblower on the Bechtel Corp, the company hired to conduct the billion-dollar cleanup by Metropolitan Edison and supervised by the government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). “While a lot of people know about the disaster, they don’t know about what happened in the cleanup phase and how close we were to another disaster,” Davidson told the Guardian. “We dodged a bullet a second time, and it was entirely due to the fact that Rick Parks and [fellow whistleblower] Larry King stood up.
“We should know about these stories,” he added. “We should be able to look at the people who risk everything in order to save communities from a potential disaster.”
Parks, a Missouri native and navy-trained nuclear operator who provides colorful, refreshingly straight-shooting narration throughout the series, moved to Middletown, Pennsylvania – the town directly adjacent to Three Mile Island – to work on cleanup three years after the accident. At the time, Bechtel was the largest private construction company in the world, with numerous Reagan administration officials on its board. The cleanup was risky, arduous and behind schedule. Bechtel received funds upon completion of individual tasks, incentivizing the company and its hirer, General Public Utilities (GPU), to cut corners and ignore NRC regulations.
Parks was particularly alarmed by rushed, off-books repairs to a polar crane damaged by radioactivity. The crane was supposed to lift the head off the reactor to expose the core; according to Park and the series, if the faulty crane malfunctioned and dropped its load on to the core, the resulting damage could have caused a radioactive leak on par with the China Syndrome. When Parks and two other employees, King and Ed Gischel, took their concerns to higher-ups at GPU and the NRC, they were dismissed. Gischel was recommended for a psychological evaluation. Parks found marijuana placed in his car on the day of a random drug inspection; someone later broke into his apartment and searched his files. (The NRC’s on-site coordinator, Lake Bennett, participates in the series and claims to not remember meeting Parks. He later say whatever Parks told him did not merit concern – “I was satisfied that that crane was safe enough.”)
Gravely concerned for the safety of family, Middletown and a potentially statewide disaster zone, Parks took his records to the Government Accountability Project, then went public days before a vote would certify the crane’s use. His disclosures and mounting public pressure caused the NRC to halt and then overhaul the cleanup process at Three Mile Island.
Carla Shamberg, Meltdown’s executive producer, first heard of Parks through lawyers for the Government Accountability Project, some of whom appear in the series, while executive-producing another project: the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, starring Julia Roberts as a real-life whistleblower. It’s taken nearly 20 years since for some version of it to make it to air. Parks and other whistleblowers were “superheroes”, she told the Guardian. “They’re one of the last bastions of the truth.”
Parks’s story has a relatively happy ending – the series delves into the personal and emotional costs of his disclosures, but the damaged crane was not used. In 1983, the same year he came forward, Metropolitan Edison was indicted on criminal charges of falsifying safety reports before the accident; the company’s plea bargain included a $45,000 fine and $1m pledge to help emergency planning in the surrounding area. Still, in the four decades since, “it hasn’t gotten better for whistleblowers,” said Davidson. “To go public now is a lot different than it was even 10 years ago. It’s a lot harder now. Whistleblowers aren’t always rewarded for their actions.”