U.S. President Donald Trump is planning to host Chinese President Xi Jinping for a two-day summit next month at his palatial Florida mansion along the Atlantic Ocean, the first meeting between the two world leaders. Neither Washington nor Beijing has confirmed the summit at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, but U.S. news outlets report the meeting between the heads of the world’s two largest economies is planned for April 6 and 7. The reports said that U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson is expected to complete plans for the Trump-Xi meeting when he visits Beijing later this week. The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Tuesday both countries were in “close communication” about exchanges between their leaders.
FILE – Secretary of State Rex Tillerson makes a statement on issues related to visas and travel, March 6, 2017, at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office in Washington. White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Monday that Trump and Xi would discuss the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons development program and test missile launches, as well as other issues. Trump has often called on China to rein in Pyongyang’s aggressive actions, pointing to Beijing’s influence over the regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
The U.S. also has voiced its opposition to Beijing’s development of man-made islands in the South China Sea, occasionally sending its warships in close proximity to the islands in international waters as a show of strength in the region.
Meanwhile, China voiced its irritation with the U.S. when Trump at first expressed the possibility of ending the decades-long U.S. “one-China policy” that accepts Beijing’s claim on Taiwan as part of China. In his transition to power, Trump took a pre-arranged call from Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen congratulating him on his November election victory, a suggestion the U.S. was not wedded to the idea of China control of Taiwan that Washington first accepted in 1979. In a message on his Twitter account, Trump said at the time, “Interesting how the U.S. sells Taiwan billions of dollars of military equipment but I should not accept a congratulatory call.”
But a month ago, Trump assured Xi in a phone call that there was no change in the U.S. acceptance of the one-China policy, easing the path to the planned summit.
During his long run to the White House, Trump often assailed China for allegedly manipulating its currency to benefit Chinese exporters. The new American president, nearing two months in office, has often complained about the wide trade imbalance between the two countries, with the $347 billion disparity between two countries the biggest in the world. Last year, China sent $463 billion in consumer electronics, clothing and machinery to the U.S., while the U.S. shipped $116 billion in raw materials to China for low-cost assembly. Many of the most popular U.S. consumer products sold by American technology giant Apple, including its popular iPhone, are manufactured in China.
But numerous economic analysts say it is doubtful Trump can cut in to the wide trade imbalance, despite his frequent boasts that he will bring back jobs to America that have been lost to overseas locations as manufacturers search for cheaper labor in other countries.
FILE- A container is loaded onto a cargo ship at the Tianjin port in China, Aug. 5, 2010. With the apparent death of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China sees a chance at forming its own Pacific free trade area
Trump has suggested that he will try to impose new tariffs on foreign-produced goods manufactured by U.S. companies overseas, an action that would need congressional approval and could set off a tariff war with other countries. The reality is that many American consumers want to be able to buy cheaper foreign-produced items, though, even if it means that fewer goods are built in America and it costs U.S. workers their jobs. Trump said during his presidential campaign that on his first day in office he would label China a currency manipulator, but he has yet to do so.
Oceti Sakowin (later called Oceti Oyate) was the main camp at Standing Rock. On February 23, 2017, it was cleared by law enforcement from several states and the North Dakota National Guard. Across the Cannonball River was Sacred Stone, the first camp in the movement, which was closed March 1, by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and law enforcement officers said to be national park rangers.
(Could the National Park Service be as split as the rest of the country, with interpretive rangers alt-tweeting resist while law-enforcement colleagues apply political force? Parks law enforcement have been staying at the tribal casino hotel and pull long gun cases on wheels like luggage through the halls….)
This post is one of a series on the veterans event that took place in early December at Standing Rock. The event contributed to the decision by the Army Corps of Engineers to rescind the easement for the Dakota Access Pipeline, meant to pass under the Missouri River a mile from the Standing Rock Sioux reservation. The rescission on December 4 was celebrated as a victory. Donald Trump effectively reversed it January 24, and oil will flow, the company says, by April 1.
It was cold in the astronomical twilight before dawn on Saturday, December 3. The flap to the tipi had blown open during our brief sleep, and wind swirled over the bodies and detritus of cold-weather camping inside. The tiny burner on the propane tank had gone out, and a cast-iron stove made for the US Army nearly a century earlier sat useless as a hernia in the center of the floor.
It had been a hard couple of days of travel. Tommy, another vet, lay in his army sleeping bag in front of the open door, comfortable as a Viking in bilgewater. Gaff was still and silent in the bag next to mine. Gaff s a killer and an undergrad at the New School, afraid of only one thing in this life, he says the SPG-9, a Russian 73mm recoilless rifle he saw in use in Afghanistan and he lay smiling sweetly in sleep. The sky lightened through the open door and out the top of the poles as the sounds of camp rose a car engine, generator racket, shouts, faraway singing and a drum. Heather, our Oglala host, had come in only recently from all-night medic rounds and had fallen into exhausted sleep. I didn t want to disturb her, but finally there was no escaping my problem. I fought out of my bag and thrashed pulling on freezing jeans, freezing Polartec shirt, freezing quilted coveralls, freezing insulated boots, and my freezing winter coat, which I hadn t needed in five years. I struggled to my feet, nearly fell on Gaff, stepped over Tommy and squatted painfully in the same motion, and crawled out the door into the morning. Oceti was as striking under the winter sun as it was sublime in darkness a village of large white tipis, army tents in OD green and desert sand, yurts, a canvas longhouse, cars, trucks, buses, woodpiles and cutting yards, work sites with wall-framing underway, the smoke of wood fires, a muddy central avenue lined with flags snapping in the sharp breath of the Plains. There were perhaps 5,000 people on the multi-acre field between Cantapeta Creek to the north and the Cannonball River to the south, with another 2,000 to 4,000 veterans and other allies on the way.
Later, foes would claim the camp itself was an environmental hazard, since the field turned out to be a floodplain, and anything on it could end up in the Missouri at spring melt. They d say water protectors, as they wished to be called, were hypocrites for claiming to want to save the river from contamination by oil. But during the first week of December, flooding wasn t being discussed at all I d venture that most had never been told it was a possibility and responsible infrastructure seemed in place.
Porta-potties, my need and reason for rising, were placed strategically around camp, and compost toilets were being built, thanks to actress Patricia Arquette. Giant roll-off dumpsters were used for trash collection. (Unlike Paris, Oceti didn t seem to have so much as a pile of dog crap lying around; any clutter was stuff waiting to get used.) A few solar arrays had been brought in by small alternative-energy companies. Seven central kitchens kept individual cooking fires to a minimum, and tent-dwellers without heat could keep warm and safe in the kitchens and in two connected geodesic domes used as a community center. People checked on each other, and Heather and her fellow medics and security went around all day, every day, asking how everyone was doing. Security kept the peace and safety, and it’s notable that no one died in 10 months in the occupation–not from conflict in or out of camp, from drugs or alcohol, from traffic accidents, or from harsh weather. A sense of common purpose in protest had been deepened by the weather and (for some) the imminent arrival of thousands of reinforcements, many of them combat-trained, young, and fit. Optimism said the pipeline would be stopped, and the camp would become a historical landmark in the struggle for human rights, as well as (eventually) a model of sustainable living. Even non-natives said they felt the spirituality of the sacred fires, sweat lodges, and Native prayer and rites. But there were tensions, before and after the vets came. Oceti Sakowin was 100% dependent on donations, from food and water to firewood and propane. Chase Iron Eyes, a Standing Rock Sioux member, lawyer, and former candidate for Congress, said he provided 80% of the firewood and propane, through his organization Last Real Indians. So many other donations, such as sleeping bags and medical supplies, poured in by mail, FedEx, and UPS, that volunteer crews had to be formed to get them from town before they were sent back to senders. Flyers on toilet doors listed who to call to join the effort.
Donations weren t just things, such as gas masks and trailers filled with frozen meat. The official Veterans for Standing Rock page at GoFundMe had raised $1,155,760 from 25,989 donors in little more than a month. (As of today, GoFundMe alone lists 4,026 Standing Rock-related funding projects.) With the camp standing for sovereignty, traditional ways, and sustainability, reliance on and acceptance of outside help made it vulnerable to political rhetoric. Another tension was the factions, even within the Native community, which valued different means to the same end. Many of the elders, matriarchs, and headsmen stressed peace and prayer, but Red Warrior Society ( Indigenous Resistance to Colonialism, Resource Extraction, and Genocide ), eg, favored direct actions that were not prayer circles, and many of the vets who came to Standing Rock expected to take part in those. Bound up in the Native Americans’ appreciation for allies were fears that culturally-clueless non-natives would take over the movement with dreams of being white saviors, re-enacting colonialism in the process. This isn t Dances with Wolves, and you aren t Kevin Costner, a Native vet says in an orientation video I saw only months after Veterans Stand.
The camp was large enough that it took maybe 45 minutes to walk the circumference. Dirt roads led me back to the north guard shack on State Highway 1806, the western boundary of camp. A small bridge a quarter-mile north had been blockaded by police to keep people away from the drill pad and, many believed, to punish the tribe economically. In fact there were many complaints about the closed bridge by whites from Bismarck, who wanted to get more directly to points south, including the tribal casino; by Standing Rock tribal leadership, who wanted to give white folks the chance to surrender their money; and by Native residents of the Cannon Ball district, who could only get to Bismarck businesses by driving way around, and whose sick and elderly were put in danger, they said, by poor access for emergency services.
A left just before the guard shack led through rows of tents and cars along the two-lane highway, past a horse pen, empty now, then up the slippery slope of the only terrain feature in camp. For months it had been called Facebook Hill for its homemade cell tower, but about the time we got there it had, significantly, been renamed Media Hill. Press and Legal tents were on top, amid other structures and parked cars, including a van that served as broadcasting studio for Spirit Resistance Radio. Someone had painted a large sign that read, Chemtrails cause climate change, and a photo op at the highest point offered a Water is Life banner, a snowman, and a vista of camp with militarized law enforcement in the distance. The panorama of winter resistance looked like any place or time except contemporary America, and residents struggled to describe it to newcomers and the outside world. It looked like a refugee camp abroad, some said, or a post-apocalyptic settlement on the edge of what was left of America s wealth, or a postmodern jumble of 19th, 20th, and 21st century images. A yellow DAPL helicopter was on orbit over the tipis, while a drone whirred far beneath two circling hawks. (One of these drones, piloted by Native media company Digital Smoke Signals, had helped put the lie to Morton County Sheriff s Department claims that water cannons weren t used on people in 26-degree weather two weeks earlier.)
The Missouri River ran somewhere to the east, and its big freshwater smell was on the breeze. The surrounding hills were shaped naturally but looked much like manmade mounds at Cahokia; both served as sacred burial sites, which was one of the main objections to the pipeline. Sacred Stone founder LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, who has deep ties to white-Native conflict, says her father and son are buried nearby. An indigenous journalist said human remains had been found when the state cut the highway along Media Hill. Visible on hills to the north were armored vehicles, radio masts, razor wire, and observant men in modern armor, carrying weapons. In a sadistic, criminally-stupid show of force, Stinger Missile systems would be placed on those hills on January 16. (Ask yourself what it means, even symbolically, for military weaponry of that kind to be deployed against American citizens.) North of the police line was a two-mile corridor, 150-feet wide, that DAPL had bulldozed on September 3, which the tribe specifically decried as a desecration of burial grounds.
A press pass was required to take photos in camp or even ask people questions, and the media coordinator and others would tell us that anyone caught without a pass faced expulsion from camp and possible rough treatment. For now, someone standing guard outside the closed media tent said there would be a mandatory press orientation they wanted the story told as they wished it to be heard but when, he didn t know. It was clear from the start the staff was both overwhelmed and unprepared for the mainstream and independent media (many of whom had no credentials) descending to watch the veterans event play out. Over the next two days I d walk up and down icy Media Hill six times. Attitudes toward media were deeply ambivalent. Many in camp were enraged by a perceived lack of mainstream coverage, which they saw as existential threat if not conspiracy. Yet the media tent gave out press passes slowly, sometimes leaving 20 people standing in the cold and wind for hours. The Al Jazeera stringers traveling with us missed the start of one orientation by seconds and were told to go away and come back later, but when, no one knew. Other times passes were issued to women who had just walked up, because matriarchy was the Native way, a white media coordinator said. Some believed only Natives should speak of an event by and for Natives, even as there were worries that 80% of the people in camp were non-Native. Red Warrior, when asked if they would like to make someone available for an oral history, told me, thank you, but we will tell our own story. someday. On top of suspicion and confusion, media staff and action organizers told us police would target those with press passes, so we should hide them in our clothing if we went to the front. We must, however, be ready to produce them to anyone from camp on demand. And despite (social) media playing the key role in garnering support and swelling numbers especially videos of the water cannon skirmishes, which seemed especially perverse because they happened during Thanksgiving week, of all holidays we weren t to take photos during actions of protestors faces, as they might be used by police later. A white photographer in the Getty stable, famous for his work in Ferguson, was living in his car at Standing Rock and looked more haggard each day. He told me later as we stood in a crowd around the sacred fire: A press pass here is like the Star of David.
Now an independent filmmaker standing forlornly on the hill outside the Media tent said that because there were many factions and no clear leadership in camp; because roles were ill-defined; because the camp was made of transients; and because information was jealously guarded, gossip spread easily and created fear and anger. Chief among these were rumors of police infiltrators and DAPL agents provocateurs. I thought he was headed for how journalists and new vets might be suspected of such treachery, and perhaps rightfully so. Instead he told me police forces could be crouched even now by the river, peering over the verge at camp, waiting for an infiltrator s signal to sweep through with brutal cruelty. Anyone who survived would be pushed onto the highway in the snow and deep cold, without their belongings, to be driven away like cattle. Police had incentive to do so, he said, because when the mass of vets arrived, the population of the camp would become unmanageable. From what I could see, forced eviction was already logistically impossible at least in the US I had known, and it was specifically the kind of thing President Obama was said to be worried about for his legacy. But let s face it: Just because you re paranoid doesn t mean they re not out to get you. As I was beginning to suss all this out and wishing I was back down the hill talking to somebody else, Matt walked up carefully in his jump boots, cussing after back-pulling attempts to stay upright. Jump boots are a valuable sign in the deep class-snobbery of the military, and they re punk as fuck. But these had no treads, and the slope was treacherous from traffic and cycles of freeze and thaw. Matt said there was a vets meeting about to start, so we headed down dutifully, clutching each other and doing a different kind of Airborne Shuffle. It wasn t yet eight a.m.
There used to be a commercial about how the US Army did more before nine a.m. than most people did all day. At the end of it, a young troop, some E-nothing, lifted his canteen cup of hot steamin joe and said cheerily, Hey, First Sergeant! Good morning! When it ran in the post theater before movies (an odd redundancy, it would seem), the place would erupt with catcalls and cries of, You kiss-ass motherfucker! Matt was nearly a generation behind me in his service, and I told him about the ad and its reaction. He laughed. Yep, there s still plenty of time for us to get gassed and shot with rubber bullets today, he said, a lot of hope in his voice.
- ^ Native Nations Rise (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ Patricia Arquette (theartofla.com)
- ^ Chase Iron Eyes (www.huffingtonpost.com)
- ^ orientation video (vimeo.com)
- ^ Spirit Resistance Radio (bsnorrell.blogspot.com)
- ^ put the lie (www.youtube.com)
- ^ claims (www.nbcnews.com)
- ^ deep ties (www.yesmagazine.org)
- ^ Stinger Missile (www.thedailybeast.com)
- ^ bulldozed (www.ecowatch.com)
- ^ decried (rabbitsliketrumpets.typepad.com)
- ^ 80% (vimeo.com)
- ^ skirmishes (www.washingtonpost.com)
- ^ out to get you (www.democracynow.org)
It’s been 38 years now, but the long legacy of the March 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant lingers to this day. The crisis touched off a public panic in central Pennsylvania, ultimately leading to mass evacuations. This, as mixed messages and outright misinformation from both the power company and public officials masked the truth and eroded trust when it most mattered. Nearly four decades later, those in central Pennsylvania left to fend for themselves amid this life-and-death crucible haven’t forgotten. In fact, some are still emotionally affected.
“People didn’t know who to turn to or who to trust, so they left town,” recalls Eric Epstein, chairman of TMI Alert, the nuclear plant monitoring group formed two years before the accident.
Central Pennsylvanians left in droves. The governor’s evacuation advisory at the time covered only pregnant women and young children – around 5,000 people within a 5-mile radius of the plant, just outside Middletown. Instead, an estimated 144,000 people clogged the roads and highways exiting the Harrisburg region, Epstein recalls.
“A lot of people didn’t know if they were ever coming back,” he says. “That is a psychic emotional experience that doesn’t heal.”
Not even 38 years later. Yet, it fell to one man, above all else, to try and regain, then maintain, the public’s trust in Three Mile Island over the next nearly four decades.
His name in Ralph DeSantis. At the time of the accident, however, he was little more than a fresh-faced college graduate with a teaching degree who just happened to take a job as a TMI security guard a few months before what still stands as America’s worst nuclear disaster.
Chain of errors
Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 had been operating for just a few months, when in the wee hours of March 28, 1979, a chain of errors would touch off the most serious nuclear accident in American history. The accident began with a relatively routine attempt by operators to clear a filter blockage while Unit 2 continued to operate at 97 percent capacity.
But as DeSantis now says, “nothing is ever routine in nuclear power.”
Sure enough, a series of events caused feed water pumps supplying Unit 2’s steam generators to be cut off. Heat and pressure began to build inside the reactor’s coolant system. Eventually, this triggered an automatic shut-down of the reactor – exactly as designed. But there were more problems. Even though the nuclear reaction had been halted by the automatic shut-off, there was plenty of residual heat – and it was still building up within the primary cooling system.
Auxiliary pumps activated automatically. But because other valves had been closed for the original maintenance – a violation of federal regulations – no additional cooling water could be pumped in. Pressure continued to build, triggering a pressure relief value. The relief valve should have closed as soon as the excess pressure was vented. But the valve stuck – another major design flaw. Eventually, this stuck valve allowed precious water to escape the primary cooling system. It depressurized, uncovering part of the reactor core. With nothing to cool it, the core became super-heated, and the uranium oxide fuel rods and fuel pellets partially melted down.
“Half of the core became uncovered,” DeSantis recounts. “That is not a good thing.”
Human error compounded the design flaws. Operators, confused by an errant indicator light on Unit 2’s control panel, didn’t realize the valve was stuck for hours. And they never verified whether the relief valve was actually opened or closed. Worse, there was no instrument to directly measure the level of water in the core. So as pressure continued to mount as the super-heating accelerated, operators assumed there was too much water, instead of not enough.
This led operators to turn off emergency cooling pumps, which had automatically started in response to the overheating crisis. These operators ignored still other indicators of an ongoing loss-of-coolant – until at 4:15 a.m. on March 28, a relief tank ruptured and radioactive coolant began leaking into the general containment building. Exactly 165 minutes had passed since this chain of events began when radiation alarms finally sounded. Unit 2’s general containment building was seriously contaminated. And radiation levels in the primary coolant water were now 300 times normal.
The crisis at Three Mile Island was just beginning.
Ralph DeSantis had every reason to believe his time at TMI would be temporary. His work as a security guard there was just something to tide him over until he could put his teaching degree to work and, perhaps, coach basketball, too. Then three months later, the crisis occurred. Soon, DeSantis found himself helping escort the likes of then-Gov. Richard “Dick” Thornburgh and then-President Jimmy Carter on and off the island as the crisis stretched out for days. Even as tens of thousands of central Pennsylvanians evacuated, DeSantis never gave a moment’s thought to abandoning his post.
Looking back, he says this is because he had access to the best information coming from inside the plant – something the panicked public never had during the crisis.
“I was surrounded by people in the know,” DeSantis says of the far-different atmosphere inside the plant, then owned by GPU’s Metropolitan Edison. “We were getting very good information at the plant. One of the big problems was all the misinformation that was out there in the days after the accident.”
Indeed, the company and public officials at various levels of governmental weren’t on the same page at all. A panic-producing mess of mixed messages and flat-out incorrect information was the unfortunate result. Simply put, the public didn’t know where to turn for answers. So they left central Pennsylvania in droves.
“The accident was a textbook example of how not to handle a crisis,” TMI Alert’s Epstein says now. “The result was fear and lack of trust in the company and government institutions.”
But even as a security guard, DeSantis was already thinking like the TMI communications staffer he would become some six months later. Problem No. 1 was that the company employed no communications professionals at all.
“They had no one at the company in communications at the time,” DeSantis recalls. “And there were zero connections with the local community.”
Within this vacuum, miscommunications multiplied and public panic reached a fever-pitch.
“It was a very serious accident,” DeSantis says now. “It got so much publicity and scared so many people. But it really didn’t cause any problems.”
In the end, Unit 2’s containment building and its 3-1/2 feet of steel-lined, reinforced concrete held. DeSantis says more than 99 percent of the radioactivity released from the core’s closed system was contained inside building. Even the small amount of radioactivity vented into the atmosphere was in the form of noble gas, which DeSantis says doesn’t affect the food chain and can be breathed and expelled by humans. As proof, he cites a long series of independent, scientifically conducted health and cancer studies done in the decades since that show no statistically significant health effects from the accident.
“No impact,” DeSantis insists. “I had to try to explain that.”
Waiting for him was an angry public left feeling confused, terrified and misled. Not only would they remain unconvinced, many were openly hostile to anything the power company had to say. It would fall to DeSantis, as a member of TMI’s newly formed communications team, to try. Otherwise, TMI’s Unit 1, which was untouched by the crisis yet was ordered shut down, might never receive a federal license to resume operating.
Literally, billions hung in the balance.
Some serious venting
First things first. Three Mile Island, along with the larger nuclear power community, had to correct the mistakes exposed by the accident. These were the combination of control room design flaws, inadequate operational procedures and ineffective training that all combined to cause Unit 2’s partial meltdown. Many upgrades, overhauls and retraining followed. Beyond this, Three Mile Island, itself, would need a better way to communicate with the public and to forge stronger relations in the community. So within TMI, crisis communications was invented.
“Crisis communications was really born out of the TMI accident,” DeSantis says. “I helped put together some of the first crisis communication plans. There was a huge need to have a plan in place, a real process and trained people to provide the information.”
This would solve the miscommunication problem, should there ever be another accident. But the most pressing problem post-crisis remained the plant’s rock-bottom public perception. Trust in the power plant and the company operating it was left in tatters by the many missteps made in those waning days of March 1979.
DeSantis, part of the then-20-plus-member TMI communications team, fanned out to meet local governmental officials and hold scores of town hall meetings across the region, each one seeming to boil over with angry residents. In those early years, the best DeSantis and others at the plant could do was play the target for the public’s ire.
“A big part of us going out was to let people vent, to listen to people, to be empathetic,” DeSantis recalls. They’d receive an earful, and then some.
“A lot of anger and really upset people,” he says. “All the trust was broken.”
TMI was more than two years into its community relations campaign when officials were stunned to see just how much more work remained. The occasion was a 1982 public hearing held by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. The NRC was still withholding Unit 1’s federal license to resume operating. And the key to regaining the license remained the “trust and credibility of the operator.”
If DeSantis and others thought the public hearing would show the fruits of their public relations efforts, they were badly mistaken. Instead, anger flowed and criticism of TMI rained down.
“It was just filled,” DeSantis recalls of the meeting held in a high school gymnasium. “You couldn’t get in. It was an emotionally charged meeting. And I was thinking, ‘wow, I don’t know when they will ever vote on the restart’.”
It would be three more long years until Unit 1 regained its license, finally resuming operations in October 1985. This proved a turning point. From here on, actions would speak louder than words.
For six solid years — from 1979’s crisis to Unit 1’s 1985 restart — Three Mile Island remained a fixture in the headlines.
“National media was coming on a weekly basis for several years,” DeSantis recalls. Within central Pennsylvania, the media scrutiny was even more intense.
“From 1979 to 1985, TMI was in the newspaper every day,” says Epstein, who as chairman of the nuclear plant watchdog group, TMI Alert, was on opposite sides from DeSantis.
“It was a fierce battleground,” he says. “It included litigation and overwhelming public opposition to the restart of TMI-1. All that intensity is lost today, making it difficult for anyone who wasn’t there to understand, Epstein explains.
“There is a couple generations now between those who were viscerally affected by the accident, and those who came later,” he points out.
Yet, even when the battle over TMI and nuclear power was at its hottest, DeSantis and Epstein found a way to communicate — ultimately cooling community relations between the plant and the public, if not to the point of trust, at least to a truce.
“When you lose trust, it is hard,” Epstein says. “And I am not saying they gained trust back. The problem with the PR side of nuclear was they were intent on proselytizing. They tend to want to convert their opponents. Ralph was instrumental in recognizing there is going to be opposing views, so how do we learn to work together?”
Three Mile Island accident legacy
Over 35 years, and from opposite sides, DeSantis and Epstein did learn, although Epstein believes in the adage, trust but verify. He still works with a group that monitors radiation around TMI in real time.
“Our relationship created a unique and constructive paradigm,” Epstein says of DeSantis, the only member of TMI’s original communications team who remained all these years.
“We know each other very well,” Epstein adds. “Look, there were ups and downs. There were strong disagreements over the years. But you have to find a way to co-exist. I don’t view the community as pro- or anti-nuclear. We are one community.”
Now, this hard-fought, hard-won era of understanding is coming to a close. This, as the man who once thought his stint at Three Mile Island would end after a few months of working as a security guard finally walks away after 38 years. Ralph DeSantis, for many the face of TMI, has retired, effective Feb. 28 at age 61.
“Ralph is irreplaceable,” Epstein says. “He has institutional memory. He has experience. He experienced the accident, learned some lessons, and we all learned to live and work together. We’ve always communicated, no matter what problem or challenge was associated with TMI.”
Now, that dialogue is ending.
Shoes to fill
DeSantis’ replacement at TMI, now owned and operated by Exelon Generation, is former ABC27 anchor and reporter, Dave Marcheskie. He wasn’t alive during the TMI accident. Marcheskie first encountered DeSantis through the skeptical lens of TV camera, only to find the TMI spokesman credible and authentic. In other words, an honest broker when it came to dispensing information on everything TMI. Marcheskie is pledging to follow this example, after having worked alongside DeSantis these past several weeks.
“I learned from the best,” Marcheskie declares.
But as for who really won their 35-year information campaign over TMI and nuclear power, DeSantis and Epstein will have to agree to disagree. For his part, DeSantis points to the plant’s record of community outreach, philanthropy and solid relationships with elected officials as proof that trust has been reclaimed. There’s also Unit 1’s stellar operational record since being restarted in 1985. So much so, Unit 1 was recently licensed for another 20 years. Its operational life now stretches until 2034 — and even this could be extended again.
“It just took time,” DeSantis says. “Every day, earning back trust, a little bit. Every day. We had kind of proven ourselves that we were going to communicate with people. Then in 1985, the plant started up and it ran so well; the proof was in the pudding. We weren’t just talking. We could back up what we were saying.”
Still, Epstein insists time isn’t on nuclear power’s side.
“TMI was the beginning of the end of nuclear power,” he insists. Indeed, the industry was frozen in place for decades in America. More recently, however, a couple of new nuclear plants have come on line. Nevertheless, Epstein remains fully confident of the industry’s demise. It’s not public opposition that will be its undoing — rather, it will be simple, inescapable economics, he says.
“The problem for nuclear power is the market place is ruthless,” Epstein insists. “They can’t compete. It is an economic fiction. The business model has failed.”
For that, one can blame cheap, abundant natural gas now generating the majority of America’s power, much of it unleashed from shale deposits buried deep under parts of Pennsylvania and elsewhere. All this has been courtesy of another controversial process known as fracking.