In Memoriam: Margaret A. Reilly


by David J. Allard, CHP, William P. Dorsife, PE, and Joel O. Lubenau, CHP

Margaret "Maggie" A. Reilly, a former health physicist who played a key role in Pennsylvania's response to the 1979 Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear reactor accident, died recently at her home in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She was 73. Maggie was a certified health physicist who worked more than 30 years for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection (BRP).

For those of us who knew Maggie, we will remember her as one of the most intelligent, witty, and eccentric individuals who graced the places and times we shared.

Margaret Reilly was born on 24 December 1941, in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, to Thomas P. Reilly and Helen (Arnold) Reilly. She graduated from Lebanon Catholic High School in 1959, where she was a member of the varsity women's basketball team. In 1963, she received a BS in chemistry from Misericordia University. She later received a U.S. Public Health Service Fellowship in radiological health, received a master's degree in radiological health from Rutgers University in 1968, and was promoted to chief of the BRP's Division of Environmental Radiation.

In 1975, Maggie was appointed to a Brookhaven National Laboratory team that visited Bikini Island to evaluate the environmental impacts of nuclear weapons tests that took place there. In the 1980s, she played a major role in identifying and investigating indoor radon as a significant source of public radiation exposure. Maggie played a key role in the state's immediate and long-term response to the TMI nuclear reactor accident in 1979. In fact, at a recent Penn State "TMI@35" symposium, several of the presenters mentioned her skill and "unique sense of humor" in their formal presentations. Just after the TMI event, she captured the lessons learned from the accident and noted, "When all else fails, consider intimidation" and "Keep a sense of humor." It might be said she followed that last lesson all throughout her life.

In September 2002, Maggie was interviewed at the Hershey Medical Center as part of a Health Physics Society (HPS) History Committee program of recording interviews with senior members of the HPS. In retirement she was a consultant and helped document the history of the Pennsylvania radiation control program. In 2000, Maggie was brought back as an annuitant to work in BRP in order to organize and catalogue all of the bureau's TMI records. Everyone in the office really enjoyed having her at work again and watching her "trip down memory lane" with all those records.

Maggie was an associate editor of Operational Health Physics and was featured in a "Women in Science" poster that encouraged young women to enter the sciences.

She attended St. Patrick Cathedral in Harrisburg and was a member of the choir. It goes without saying, but Maggie will be greatly missed by her family, as well as by her many friends and colleagues.

She is survived by her sister, Anne M. Lubenau; brother-in-law, Joel O. Lubenau, CHP, of Lititz, Pennsylvania; and niece, Anne-Marie Lubenau, of Cambridge, Massachussetts.


As you have read in our "Remembering Margaret A. Reilly," the recent passing of Maggie has prompted a number of recollections of her many amazing experiences over the years. In particular, her involvement with the radon "index house" in 1984 and the Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2 reactor accident is especially noteworthy. After the accident phase for TMI, Maggie typed up some lessons learned. Some take aim at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's actions at the time, while others illustrate her great (unfiltered) wit and sense of humor. We're not sure if they were ever published, but we found a copy and present them here for your reading pleasure. Enjoy!

TMI Lessons Learned

Margaret Reilly, Pennsylvania Division of Environmental Radiation, Bureau of Radiation Protection

May 1979

  • Don't plan beyond the time frame of the first 4–6 hours. After that, the event has assumed its own identity and has a life of its own.
  • The interactions of individuals and agencies are very much a function of mutual respect and confidence prevailing at the time, and as such transcends planning.
  • The judgments of responsible officials depend on training and experience, not on glossy, four-color plans.
  • Before you start something, you had better have a criterion, so you have a recognized point for stopping it.
  • It is unwise to depend on offsite measurements for forming decisions for protective actions.
  • Guard against individuals and agencies who are not party to your plan, interfering in it.
  • Protect your information flow pattern described in the plan.
  • Have several confidential phone lines in place. Change the numbers after each crisis.
  • Get about twice as much communications capability as you think you'll need, and use it regularly.
  • When attempting to make field estimates of airborne iodines, use silver zeolite. Noble gases love to adsorb on charcoal. Noble gases will also screw up your background.
  • Noble gases are gases and will obey gas laws. They diffuse nicely. Staying indoors when nobles are at fault doesn't buy crap if the plume is near the ground.
  • Radon measurement is a growth industry. Radon is as ubiquitous as nematodes. Seek and ye shall find.
  • The Department of Energy's (DOE's) Atmospheric Release Advisory Capability capabilities are better than I thought.
  • Before you sample anything, decide precisely what it is you want the data to tell you.
  • Don't throw everything you have at it in the beginning. People do get weary. These events last a long time.
  • Carry a tape recorder and talk to it regularly.
  • Isolate your decision makers from the press and from the miscellaneous phone calls during the peak crisis.
  • Beware of your own overreaction.
  • People who ought to know better will cavalierly slip an exponent sign, substitute micro for pico, and confuse minutes with seconds. Check funny numbers.
  • While the acute episode is in progress, abandon the reading of newspapers, watching the tube, listening to radio. These activities will only make you weird.
  • Keep on hand a supply of antacids and analgesics. We have a jar of Rolaids labeled "TMI Mints."
  • Plan for delivery of food and for other niceties like sleeping facilities. You may not go home for a while.
  • Plan for alternate analytic capabilities. It doesn't take much of an accident to make your background go to pot.
  • Events do not fulminate as many had believed. They develop at a rate sufficient to catch the attention of those who will ignore your plan and muddy the water.
  • More energy will be expended in heading off asinine decisions than in dealing with the real problem.
  • Many people in high places are surrounded by clones.
  • Emergencies cannot be managed from Bethesda, only screwed up.
  • Emergency management cannot be effected by a group in Bethesda who otherwise cannot agree on anything.
  • Protective action recommendations are not amenable to committee vote.
  • When something big happens there are many who think, "This is the chance of a lifetime. I may never again have the opportunity to affect the outcome. How can I screw it up?" It is, they won't, and they do in many ways.
  • Everybody is an expert in reactor emergency management, and they aren't afraid to step forward.
  • Get your Public Information Official in on the caper early. Update frequently.
  • Don't be afraid to put nonessential calls on hold or to hang up on the nitwit.
  • The federal response by DOE's Radiological Assistance Program teams and tech grunts was great. Too bad that can't be said about appointed officials and GS-95s in Bethesda.
  • Have any of you ever seen a federal emergency plan for fixed facilities?
  • The national media people in general are an unmitigated pain in the butt. The local radio guys are great.
  • Many elected and appointed officials are unacquainted with their duties, resources, responsibilities, and powers. It always was and always will be and will always remain the same.
  • From the perils of a new administration, deliver us O Lord.
  • Elected officials and the media are gluttons for information, whether they know what it means or not. They will eat up your patience and stamina and time if you let them.
  • Many elected officials eventually turn out to be more perceptive than you originally thought.
  • Be glad that the USA is monolingual.
  • When all else fails, consider intimidation.
  • Keep a sense of humor.