Opinion: Lessons for Our Times From a Man Named Harold Denton

The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Photo from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent stay in place order for almost all residents of Maryland during a very uncertain time led me to think about another very uncertain time in another March … March of 1979.

I don’t know where you were in March 1979 but I vividly recall where I was. I was working and living in Harrisburg, Pa., when the nearby Three Mile Island nuclear power plant experienced a partial meltdown.

While the immediate scope of this catastrophe was on a much, much, much, much smaller scale than the current COVID-19 pandemic, there are some eerie similarities.

The initial response from Met Ed (owner and operator of TMI) was denial as to the severity of the incident, delayed responses which made a bad situation much worse and great confusion about next steps to address the problem. All of that, coupled with silent, serious and invisible health threats from radiation; 24-7 media coverage that was frenzied, long on conjecture and short on facts; and communication breakdowns at multiple levels caused widespread fear and panic among the citizenry of south central Pennsylvania — and beyond.

It quickly reached a point where President Carter (himself a nuclear engineer) called the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and told them he wanted someone on the ground at TMI immediately who could report back to him on exactly what was going on.

The answer from the NRC was succinct: “Mr. President, his name is Harold Denton. He is on his way.” Denton left Washington in the middle of a meeting so quickly, his son had to drive to Harrisburg the next day to deliver clean clothes to him.

Denton was later referred to by Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh as THE hero of TMI.

At first glance, Harold Denton was an unexpected hero. He was a career bureaucrat, had a casual, almost rumpled appearance and spoke quietly.

Governor Thornburgh was right.

Denton, who had a Ph.D. in nuclear engineering, was indeed a hero to everyone who experienced those harrowing times. When Denton stepped off the helicopter that whisked him from Washington, D.C., directly to TMI, he was met immediately by the senior management of Met Ed. They told him they appreciated him coming by (like it was some kind of social get together), that everything was under control, that the worst was over and they would keep him posted on what they were going to do next.

Denton quickly dismissed all the happy talk from Met Ed. He knew instinctively they were wrong and he knew exactly what needed to be done. Denton calmly told them that under federal law he had sole authority to take full control and management of the power plant — which he did, on the spot.

From that point forward, Denton was everywhere. He was at the staging area across from the power plant, inside the power plant, attending public town hall meetings, talking to the media horde that came to Harrisburg from around the world, meeting with the governor and standing beside President Carter when he toured the control room of the stricken reactor.

Most importantly, Denton spoke directly to the public, acknowledging they had every right to be confused and scared. He explained what he knew when he knew it, using understandable layman’s terms.

In retrospect, Harold Denton rose to the occasion by displaying outstanding leadership skills and outstanding crisis management skills. He was candid, never pointed fingers, never assigned blame and never lost focus on doing the right thing during a time of great uncertainty and great public duress.

During these current uncertain times and going forward, Harold Denton’s actions serve as a great model for elected/appointed officials at all levels of government (and from both political parties) on how to address a problem by working together for the common good.

— DAVID REEL

The writer is the Maryland director at Quantum Communications, a public relations/public affairs consulting firm.