Recovering from Disaster, Molding Character

by Gordon Tomb

Philip R. Clark’s (Class of 1951) approach to the recovery from the Three Mile Island accident seemed as understated and simple as the accident itself was dramatic and complex.

Philip R. Clark’s (Class of 1951)

Philip R. Clark’s (Class of 1951)

People who reported to Clark as president of GPU Nuclear Corporation – the company that led the decade-long, billion-dollar accident cleanup – recall his directive to “do the right thing.”

“Whenever issues came up, Phil’s answer regularly was ‘just do the right thing,’” said Carol Clawson, who was a vice president of communications. “That was the filter you were to put your decisions through.”

The March 28, 1979, accident started out simply enough with a stuck-open pressure relief valve in the TMI-2 reactor. But it quickly evolved into a series of human errors that melted half of a 100-ton nuclear fuel core. News of the accident – tainted by incomplete and confused communications – spread fear through south-central Pennsylvania communities. A resulting atmosphere of mistrust was one Clark had to overcome to allow the company to operate the neighboring TMI-1 plant.

The accident – the worst in the U.S. commercial nuclear industry – hurt nobody and had virtually no effect on the environment. (The debris cloud that encircled the globe from the 1986 Chernobyl explosion produced levels of radioactive iodine near TMI that were three times higher than ones recorded after the 1979 accident.)

But concerns over the safety of nuclear plants had to be resolved. There were public hearings, court cases, and sensational allegations of both the valid and unfounded variety. In 1984, two presidential candidates appeared separately at TMI to express anti-nuclear views.

Clark entered this milieu in 1980 as executive vice president of GPU Nuclear, having completed a 25-year stint at Naval Reactors, the last 15 years as head of the Reactors Division directly under the leadership of the legendary Admiral Hyman Rickover. In 1983, Clark was promoted to president to complete the cleanup of TMI-2 and secure regulatory approval to restart TMI-1. Four years had passed since the accident, and both efforts had a long way to go. The future of the company and the existence of the nuclear industry were in question.

Clark, a native of Brooklyn who resides in Boonton, Township, New Jersey, is remembered as unflappable through it all.

Clark significantly shifted the direction of the cleanup through a key manager, who nixed a $150 million plan to grind up the TMI-2 core in favor of a more practical approach to dig out 150 tons of damaged fuel and reactor parts with long-handled tools. It was a decision that probably avoided a major failure and completed the cleanup under budget and with less than half the radiation exposure to workers than had been predicted.

Shut down for maintenance at the time of the 1979 accident next door, TMI-1 was not restarted for more than six years as regulators adjudicated complex issues, a key one being the competency of GPU Nuclear’s management.

“It seemed like there were 100 reasons given why we should not operate that plant, but Clark eliminated them one-by-one,” says Scott Surgeoner, a 30-year veteran of GPU companies and their successor. “You got the feeling that there was nothing that we couldn’t do.”

TMI-1 not only restarted but went on to set multiple world records for performance and is licensed to operate until 2034. 

Some of Clark’s early leadership experiences were at the then Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn, where he served on student council and was president of Tau Beta Pi, the civil engineering honor society. He also was on the basketball team and is pictured in the Polywog yearbook at a pool table in a nearby church gym.

After receiving a degree in civil engineering, he went to work at the Brooklyn Naval Shipyard before joining Naval Reactors in 1954, eventually reporting directly to the irascible founder of the Nuclear Navy, Hyman Rickover, whose tough style contrasted sharply with Clark’s quiet assurance.

An industry colleague, Eugene R. McGrath, former Chairman and CEO of Consolidated Edison, says, “Phil inspired confidence in people not only because of his knowledge but because of his integrity. You always had a sense that he wanted to do the right thing, and that kind of leadership was needed at TMI at the time.”

The accident and subsequent public controversy had challenged the spirit of Clark’s employees. In addition, he had a dozen direct reports competing with each other for his attention and for their budgets.

Clark launched a teambuilding initiative that led to establishing a vision for the organization: “Meeting the Energy Challenge with Leadership and Integrity.”

At a time that neither leadership nor integrity were widely associated with his company, Clark insisted that those qualities be the hallmark. Posted on a sign in front of TMI and elsewhere, the words were a source of pride and purpose for employees.

Gary Broughton, who succeeded Clark upon his retirement in 1995, then described Clark as “the molder of our company’s character.”

Clark promulgated “respect for the nuclear technology” as a key corporate value that required people of character adhering “to standards despite external pressures” and continually questioning whether the state of nuclear power was sufficiently safe.

To restore the trust the TMI accident had shattered, Clark elevated the company’s communications function to a more strategic position, building on a practice instituted after the accident to communicate regularly with stakeholders.

“It was complete distrust in 1979,” says Dr. Sam Selcher, a dentist who has served on the TMI Citizens Awareness Panel for three decades. He credits consistently good plant performance and open and frequent communication with repairing relationships with the community.

A source of pride for Clark is the bond he formed with the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers at his plants, recalling that union leaders came to his retirement party.

“He was one of the great ones,” says Joe Parks, who headed five union locals. “He was always receptive to our ideas.”

“I loved the guy, and I think all his senior mangers did,” says Clawson, the former communications vice president.

Asked about the affection of others, Clark, now 80, says, “I never considered myself to be widely loved.”

But he recalls somebody saying “something laudatory” about him that drew the applause of several hundred people at a management meeting.

“I had my back to the audience and when I turned around everybody was standing. I didn’t know what to do, so I did nothing. I guess that was love.”

Gordon Tomb is a free lance writer and a former manager of communications at Three Mile Island,