From wandering, I'm Lindsey Graham and this is American scandal. In March of 1979, the world sat captivated as a crisis unfolded in southern Pennsylvania, a nuclear power plant named Three Mile Island was approaching a potentially devastating meltdown, and technicians and government regulators appeared powerless, unable to control a runaway situation. Three Mile Island would turn out to be the most serious accident in the history of commercial nuclear power in the United States. It would spur a generation of anti-nuclear activists and change how nuclear power plants were run and regulated.
But when the accident first began to unfold, technicians had little reason to believe it would turn into a full blown crisis. Three Mile Island appeared to be facing a routine maintenance issue. Yet that issue quickly cascaded into a series of larger problems. As equipment failed and alarms began to blare site staff were left scrambling, trying to figure out how to rein in an increasingly frightening situation. Soon, the public got wind of the events at Three Mile Island and panic set in for nearby residents.
The potential consequences of a meltdown seem beyond belief. Residents feared that the region could be contaminated with radiation and cause terrible problems for their health. The panic only grew worse as news of Three Mile Island trickled out into the press. Soon, Pennsylvania's government set in motion a voluntary evacuation for pregnant women and children. Other residents also began to flee the area, seeking safety from an invisible poison. Ultimately, technicians at Three Mile Island were able to get control of the power plant and shut it down.
Still, the crisis raised profound questions for terrified residents and government leaders. Some wondered how a nightmare scenario had gotten so close to becoming reality. Others asked whether government regulators bore the guilt for letting nuclear power plants sprout across the country without proper oversight. My guest today is Peter Bradford at the time of the accident. He was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees commercial nuclear power in the United States. We'll be discussing what went wrong at Three Mile Island, who was responsible for the crisis and how nuclear power could play a larger role in the future as the world looks to fight climate change.
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Get 10 percent off your first month at better help dotcom. As the new season of American scandal is available now ad free on one year plus the season explores the story of the incredible Three Mile Island incident, one of the most significant nuclear disasters ever in U.S. history. Joined Wanderin Plus in the Wonder Yapta binge, the latest season of American scandal. Ad Free Starcher free trial today. Peter Ranford, welcome to American Scandal. Thanks very much, looking forward to it.
So for several years, you worked as a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. What is the NRC and what are its commissioners responsible for?
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is a five member federal agency charged with assuring the safe construction and operation of the nation's nuclear power plants and that any exports of nuclear fuel or materials that we make don't contribute to the spread of nuclear weapons in the world. It has some other functions, too, but those are the primary ones.
And the NRC was formed in 1975. But Unit one of the Three Mile Island was commissioned in 74 and unique to the one that failed in 78. So by the time of the accident in 1979, the NRC had only existed for four years and didn't exist at all at the time of Three Mile Island design or construction in 1968. So what oversight existed before the NRC?
The NRC was born of a split up of an entity called the Atomic Energy Commission, or AEC. The agency was formed right after World War Two to assure that there would be civilian control over the entire enterprise of developing nuclear weaponry and nuclear warships and then later on in the nineteen fifties nuclear power and other civilian uses of nuclear energy. The problem was that the Atomic Energy Commission was charged by law both with promoting the development of nuclear energy and with regulating its safety.
And as time went by in the nineteen fifties and sixties, it became clearer and clearer that the regulatory portion was being subordinated to the promotional portion. And as a result, the siting and construction of nuclear power plants around the country became more and more controversial. So in 1970, four and five, Congress made the decision to separate promotion and the entire nuclear weapons enterprise from regulation. And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which consisted of about 20 percent of the Atomic Energy Commission, was separated out and made into a standalone agency.
The rest of the Atomic Energy Commission is now and in the Department of Energy.
And that separation, was it enough to make the NRC an ineffective regulatory body?
Not really. The difficulty was that the NRC consisted still of the same people who had been doing the regulation in the Atomic Energy Commission, and it began its new life by adopting all the rules, regulations, licenses that had been promulgated by the Atomic Energy Commission. So it started out with a substantial overhang of the inadequate regulatory framework that had existed throughout the 50s and 60s. And in addition to that, that was a pretty strong attitude within both the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that everything was safe enough already.
And therefore, those who were suggesting modifications either to the power plants or to the regulations had a very heavy burden to justify any additional costs because it was assumed that the public was already completely protected and there was some reluctance to undertake reforms that suggested that what was out there already wasn't safe enough. And that lasted until until the accident at Three Mile Island shook it up pretty severely.
So before this shake up, what was the NRC supposed to be doing? What was the communication between industry and the regulators? What are their inspections, regular updates?
Well, the NRC ran a two step licensing process in which it reviewed the proposed design of any nuclear power plant and held hearings, conducted safety reviews. And then on the basis of that license, the utility was permitted to build the plant.
But before they were allowed to operate, there was a second proceeding over whether they could get an operating license and somewhat counterintuitively, about. 75 or 80 percent of the review of the plant's safety qualification took place in the operating license hearing. So basically after the plant was largely already built and there was quite a lot of momentum on the side of the applicant, the NRC was still reviewing whether it was an acceptably safe facility and whether the utility that owned it was qualified to own it and whether the operators were capable enough to run it.
And then in addition to the licensing function, the NRC had an inspection and enforcement division which inspected the plants and carried out enforcement actions when they found shortcomings. President Carter, when he came into office, also instituted what was called a resident inspector program, which assured that at every nuclear power plant, there'd be at least two full time NRC inspectors resident on the site. Up until then, almost all of the inspection function was performed by people who would visit for a period of time, a few days a week, and then go back to headquarters and write up a report.
So there was no continuing NRC presence.
So these resident inspectors weren't on site at the time of the accident. Scenes like communication or miscommunication was one of the largest problems during the accident when the accident was at its worst on Wednesday morning.
We understood very little about it when it was actually more or less under control. We now know on Friday we suddenly came to believe that it was much more serious than in fact, by that it actually was. How could that kind of discrepancy exist in what everyone believed was a high tech, sophisticated industry? And the answer is, again, because people didn't imagine that there would be emergencies and serious accidents. They had never set up the communications framework that you would need to deal with them.
The only communication out of the nuclear power plants control room at Three Mile Island that the outside world were a couple of hard wired phone lines. This was before the era of cell phones, so no one had a cell phone. The only way anyone learned anything about what was going on in plants was by people getting on those phone lines or people had been in the control room just going out and talking to others. And then those people going to the state capitol in Pennsylvania or making a phone call that the NRC, there was absolutely no linkage between the NRC emergency response center and the reactors themselves.
So right after the accident or one of the reforms was that all of the nuclear power plants in the country had to be linked to the NRC Sports Center then so that people at the NRC, just by flipping some switches, could find out what the essential parameters of a nuclear power plant were, what the court watchers and pressures were of what the radiation readings were in the containment. But it didn't exist for Three Mile Island. And so you had the NRC high officials in Bethesda hoping to make decisions about events that they could not get any real insight to.
A related problem in the control room was that the instruments there weren't even telling the operators how serious the conditions were because the instruments have been chosen with the same casual self-confidence as the communications system. Some of the temperature gauges didn't go up to twenty two. Twenty four hundred degrees in the core, which was the temperature actually obtained. They went only to 600 because that was the highest temperature you could obtain in normal operations and it was assumed that you would never exceed that.
So the operators could look at the temperature gauge and see that it was pinned at six hundred degrees. But they had no idea whether that meant that the actual temperature was six hundred and fifty, which might not matter that much, or twenty three hundred, which should be above the temperature at which the fuel rods would start to crumble. And in fact it turned out they were twenty three hundred.
So you described the the attitudes in industry and the Atomic Energy Commission and then the NRC that nuclear power was largely safe. Of course, in a strange. Coincidence, the movie, The China Syndrome was released to the public 12 days before the Three Mile Island accident. So what was the public perception of nuclear power at the time?
Well, by the time of the accident in March of 1979, there was a very substantial portion of the public that did not regard nuclear power as being acceptably safe. It had been a controversial topic throughout the 1970s. There had been events such as the fire at the Browns Ferry plant in Alabama that had raised a fair amount of public concern, even though they didn't actually lead to the release of radiation. There had also been the partial melting of the core of a plant on the shores of Lake Michigan.
And so there that there was.
Reason for a good deal of public apprehension and in some states, especially in the Northeast and in California, laws have been passed prohibiting the construction of additional nuclear plants. In the California case, it was until there was a waste repository licensed then in place, because then, as now, there was no clear idea as to where these fuel rods from the nuclear power plant operation could go. And that was a whole separate source of public concern.
In addition, the industry begun to experience very substantial cost overruns and also the cancellation of some of the plants that had been undertaken. So it was a time when utility rates were going up pretty fast anyway for other reasons. And when you toss rapidly rising costs of nuclear power and on top of that, that was a separate source of controversy as well.
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Is that the the incident that Jim Cresswell was so concerned about? He came to D.C. with a report and concerns worrying that the malfunction there could be replicated elsewhere.
You've described Jim's concern accurately, but it didn't arise from the partial meltdown, the partial meltdown. Was that a different type of plant altogether or a breeder reactor called Fermi one? And it's memorialized in quite a good book called We Almost Lost Detroit, but it had nothing to do with what happened at Three Mile Island.
Well, OK, let's talk about Jim Crosswell specific concerns then. What did they arise from and what were they and what was the NRC response?
Well, Jim had been an inspector at the Davis Bessey plant in Toledo, Ohio, and that plant had had a malfunction. I don't remember the time frame exactly, but let's say it was a year, 18 months before the accident at Three Mile Island in which the operators were misled by the indications of what water level in the core were. And this led to an extent that they might easily have begun to cut back on the amount of water in the core, when, in fact the correct action would have been to add more water at Davis Bessey.
They realized the problem before they actually made that mistake. And so they didn't actually have a meltdown of any sort. But Jim Cresswell was concerned that another crew at another plant confronted by the same situation might not be so fortunate. The planet Dave especially, was the same type of reactor. Babcock and Wilcox was the company. It was their design that was in operation at Three Mile Island Unit two. And there were about a dozen of those plants by then built or under construction in the US.
Why do you think he had a hard time convincing his superiors in Chicago to take the concerns seriously?
Well, that attitude that was inherited from the Atomic Energy Commission and the reason is successful early years of operation of nuclear power plants, that the plants were all safe enough already, anyone raising in his case, the concern that would require quite substantial modifications in the design of the plants being built and actual rearrangements of the piping and the instrumentation and the plants and operation. Anyone proposing changes like that carried a very heavy burden because the industry was under economic pressure because of these runaway costs that were causing the controversy around the rate increases.
So they didn't want any further black eyes of that sort. And since they believe the plants were safe already, their first reaction when someone like Jim showed up with a serious safety concern was to say, no, we're not going to do that. It might be an improvement, but we just don't need to do it. The plants are already safe or not.
Do you think any sort of reporting by any person, one individual who's concerned about safety could have changed the prevailing attitude? I mean, Jim Treadwell's report was just days before the accident at Three Mile Island, not enough time for any actionable response. But had there been more time, could you know, a Three Mile Island type accident had been prevented?
It certainly could have been prevented. I mean, Jim Cresswell, as concerns turned out to be quite accurate in terms of describing how a well qualified crew of nuclear plant operators could be misled into inflicting serious damage on the on their power plant. So if he had been believed and if the commission had, in fact required immediate shutdown and repair of the Babcock and Wilcox plants, know the accident would have been averted. The way it looked to the management in Jim's region of the country, the Midwest region, was that that was much too costly in relation to any benefits that would be derived from it.
In hindsight, of course, the opposite was true. Three Mile Island cost the industry a huge amount of money. Immense public relations, black, they would have been much better off avoiding it. But that's not the way they saw it at the time.
Let's talk about the accident itself. How did you come to learn that there was something wrong at Three Mile Island?
Well, any time that there was an abnormal set of events at a nuclear power plant, the five commissioners got a written notification just describing briefly what it was and what its safety significance might be. And on the morning that the accident began, we have gotten a notice like that. It doesn't particularly stick in my mind because it didn't flag the accident as being a substantial safety significance. I mean, we now know that in the early hours of the accident is when the core was destroyed.
Half of it melted early that Wednesday afternoon. There was a hydrogen explosion in the containment at Three Mile Island of the same type that destroyed the buildings at Fukushima. It's just that the Three Mile Island containment was stronger. So a very serious set of events had happened. But at NRC headquarters, there was no awareness of that at all because there weren't NRC personnel in the plant at the time and because the reporting and instrumentation from the plant to the NRC was so insufficient, I didn't really learn that anything serious was going on at Three Mile Island for 48 hours.
It was on the Friday morning that he, NRC commissioners were told that there were significant measurements of radiation offsite. I think a helicopter picked them up at first. And then some of the dosimeters that were located around the plant, there weren't nearly as many as there should have been, but there were some showing significant radiation readings, not so significant as to be hugely concerning from a public health standpoint, but certainly sufficient to cause a lot of concern, given that we didn't know where the radiation was coming from, whether it was a situation that was getting worse or that was stable.
So at this moment of revelation, how did you react? What was the NRC strategy to finding out more and dealing with the crisis?
Well, we reacted in different ways along those lines, finding out more involved the dispatching of the high level NRC personnel, particularly Harold, then who was the head of reactor regulation to the site so that we didn't have to have information that came back, filtered through the licencee, and hopefully all of a sudden didn't have much confidence since they hadn't given any indication up to that of how much trouble they were in. My own reaction. My background was in law.
I don't have a scientific background. So nobody was looking to me to fix the reactor. I tended to put it my own way, much more in terms of. The place that I had come to the NRC from I'd been living in the town of was Kasit man and serving on the Maine Public Utilities Commission, as it happened, was Kasit was the site of Maine's only nuclear plant, one that had gone into operation in 1972. So I just began asking myself, supposing this this set of events were occurring in Wisconsin and that I knew a lot of the people living around that plant.
What would I be advising them if we had the situation where the plant was leaking radiation? We didn't know why and we didn't know how much worse it could get. And so as the commissioners met that morning in order to decide what type of recommendation to transmit to the governor of Pennsylvania. I was recommending that we at least start moving particularly sensitive people, small children, pregnant women, that group away from the plant and the other commissioners came to agree on that recommendation.
It is the one that we transmitted to Governor Thornburgh in the middle of Friday, and it's the one he implemented shortly afterwards. American scandal is sponsored by Upstart several years ago, a friend of mine asked if there was that one weird trick to reduce debt fast. There's not math is very hard to cheat. For every dollar you owe, you're going to pay a dollar. Then there's the interest. That's the stuff that'll get you. But you can lower your interest rate.
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But I'm wondering if that is possible in the moment we're in right now, I think it seems important to know how the agency is created to protect public health, are equipped to fight a natural human inclination. Well, it certainly is possible. I mean, there are plenty of examples in the public health sphere of doctors and scientists who've taken unpopular actions, actions opposed by the industries that they were charged with regulating. Actions that in in hindsight turned out well, but it is difficult because history doesn't always allow you to do a controlled experiment.
You if we had shut down those nuclear power plants in order to make the fixes that Jim Cresswell had urged and no accident had ever occurred. And presumably none world, it's safe to say that there would have been people in the industry saying even today that that was an example of a grotesque regulatory overreach and an awful lot of situations go by in which it's difficult to conclude one way or the other. It's the rare case, but quite a clear one Fukushima, Chernobyl, Three Mile Island and the nuclear industry.
And there are a few others where you got an example of regulators being careless and then there being direct consequences. We're seeing the same kind of thing, of course, with covid. In the US now, the consequences of taking it too casually or coming home to roost left and right.
Nuclear power is generally regarded as safe. Deaths attributable to nuclear power are minuscule compared to oil or coal. But nuclear power is frightening. There are places on earth now that are uninhabitable and will be for generations. And also nuclear power is complex. The stakes of a mistake seem much higher. So are we capable as a country or as individuals in predicting what can go wrong at something like a nuclear power plant?
No, in a word not. We're not. And it's an important point because safety just can't rest on human capacity for perfect foresight. That's one of the problems that. Surrounded the Creswell and other situations at the time of a Three Mile Island, the challenge would always be, well, if you'll tell us exactly what the accident sequence will be, then we'll go fix it. And if someone could make a credible showing, they'd go and fix that particular sequence.
But more often, the situation was such that the person making the allegations was describing a more generally unsafe set of circumstances and couldn't predict a precise accident sequence. Or the sequence they could predict would seem so unlikely that no one would take it seriously. The original reactors, the original power reactors were relatively small. Anything that went wrong in them could be contained by the large containment buildings that were being built over them. That's sort of the situation I was describing.
But then for economic reasons, the industry said we've got to make them bigger, we've got to make it bigger, we've got to spread the costs over more kilowatt hours. So as they got bigger and the containment buildings couldn't contain them, safety came to depend on these much more complex emergency core cooling systems. And all of a sudden pipes and gauges and water tanks and human beings had to be able to interact systems and get the water needed to be and not shut it off when it needed to be on.
And that system depended a lot more on the human capacity to predict Edward Teller implausibly enough, given some of his other interests in nuclear enterprises in the early 50s, who was an advocate of building nuclear plants underground. And he said, look, that way, no matter what goes wrong, we won't have an extensive spread of radiation. The industry resisted for a number of reasons, I think, including that they were pretty sure they wouldn't be able to sell it.
But I think its abiding significance today, given that it's been superseded in the nuclear accident pantheon by Chernobyl and and Fukushima really in the US, is that nuclear safety is very expensive to establish and to maintain. And as the costs of other ways of getting carbon free electricity continue to plummet and they really have been plummeting in the last decade, it's not clear that we're ever going to have a reason to undertake a strenuous effort to bring nuclear power back.
I guess the the one thing about the circumstance at the time of Three Mile Island that I'd hate to lose sight of is that the industry was already in a lot of economic trouble starting in the mid 70s. The fact that it couldn't control its costs, that it was having to cancel a number of plants that just had gotten too expensive for the utilities and the regulators that were building them had already gotten to the point where a number of states and a number of companies just wouldn't build nuclear plants.
The Three Mile Island in that context, was an important illumination of a basic lesson. But it wasn't the lesson itself.
And succinctly, what was the lesson itself? That keeping this technology safe turns out to be too expensive for the benefits that it can deliver?
So the energy crisis of the 70s led to some desire to further explore nuclear power. Today, of course, climate change is forcing us to drive to find cleaner energy sources, and nuclear power plants do not emit carbon dioxide. And already in the US, the U.S. relies on nuclear for about one fifth of its power. In your opinion, do you think that should increase?
No, because we have other cheaper ways to provide the electricity or provide the energy or conserve away the need for the electricity other much cheaper ways than building nuclear power plants, trying to to solve climate change with nuclear power. It's like trying to solve world hunger with caviar. We're trying to solve the housing shortage with mansions. It is a carbon free technology. But in the last 10 or 15 years, it's been losing out in competitive markets over and over again.
It never wins when it has to bid against combinations of renewable energy, energy efficiency now energy storage with batteries and improvements and transmission. I mean, the truth is, neither you nor I know what. We're going to need more nuclear power, but if we keep subjecting it to the kinds of rigorous market tests that we have the capability to do in today's our markets, power markets, and certainly they were brought on largely by the accident at Three Mile Island.
Then we'll find out if nuclear power is, in fact, a low cost solution to avoiding carbon emissions. The tests to date have clearly shown that it is not. And so the industry is doing its best to circumvent the power markets, to conduct cattle drives in Congress and the state legislatures, to have nuclear power just be designated as the official climate solution and subsidized as much as necessary on that basis. But the fact is, we have other better uses for that money.
You mentioned a bit earlier that there is some similarity to how regulators face the problems of public health and and measuring risk. We're experiencing another period of skepticism about government institutions. Now we're also seeing politics shape our response to public health crises as you think back on Three Mile Island. What are some lessons from then that we can apply to today? Well, striking the best balance between safety concerns on the one hand and economic feasibility on the other tends to start with really clear guidance and the legislation that's passed by Congress or if it's a state matter by the state legislature.
And then from there on, it's a chain and each link has to be separately strong and adequate. The people who are appointed to carry out that legislation have to be capable. People who've demonstrated that they bring expertise and integrity to that task. They've got to promulgate regulations that are clear. They've got to have an enforcement regime that penalizes unsafe behavior. Companies that do it well have to prosper from doing it well. And the ones that cut corners have to suffer for that.
And the courts who are overseeing this process have to do it with integrity, impartiality and real attention to the extracting the public interest from what are often very complicated legal viruses. And we all those links are put in place and they're maintained over long periods of time. Then you will have a safe and satisfactory society when you start compromising, when you especially if you. But several of them go at the same time, then you'll get something between a bad accident and a societal catastrophe.
Peter Brantford, thank you so much for talking to me today. Thank you. That was my conversation with Peter Braford, a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1979, who faced the crisis at Three Mile Island. Next on American scandal in the middle of the 20th century, federal law enforcement targeted civil rights leaders and those who stood up for racial justice. The FBI and others rolled out a broad program which went after everyone from Billie Holiday to Martin Luther King Jr.
. Federal agents harassed and spied on these outspoken activists, yet this program wouldn't go unchecked. A group of unlikely burglars would take a major gamble and attempt to break into an FBI office. Their goal was to gather proof about a generation of federal appeals. From January, this is episode four of Three Mile Island for American Scandal. If you like our show, please give us a five star rating and leave a review. Sure. To tell your friends, subscribe on Apple podcast.
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