Thirty years later: Remembering TMI
Saturday, March 28, 2009, marks the 30th anniversary of the partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island. (Jason Malmont/The Sentinel)

Priscilla Laws could not have known how much time was left for the huge containment vessel shaped slightly like an hourglass.

The Dickinson College physics professor was invited to tour the Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor shortly before its fuel rods were delivered and the unit went online in December 1978.

Now retired, she remembers entering a room where technicians had assembled a scale model to verify the location of every single wire and pipe that serviced the reactor building.

Little more than three months later, Laws was among the faculty members who had entered what became a modern-day ghost town in northeastern York County just across the Susquehanna River from TMI.

“Everybody had left Goldsboro,” Laws said. “It was totally empty.”

Borough residents had fled the scene around the most serious accident in the operating history of U.S. commercial nuclear power plants.

Thirty-five years ago this Friday, a combination of equipment failure, design flaws and worker error caused a partial meltdown in the Unit 2 reactor and the release of a small amount of radioactivity.

The March 28, 1979, incident brought about sweeping changes in emergency response planning, reactor operator training, radiation protection and other areas of nuclear plant operations.

Laws was in Goldsboro that March to visit the home of physics professor John Luetzelschwab who had a direct line-of-sight from the damaged reactor.

Working together, they used an ordinary household vacuum cleaner to draw air through a filter to collect a sample they could test for signs of radioactivity. The test confirmed the presence of trace amounts of an isotope from the plant.

A scientist trained in nuclear physics, Laws was among the experts called on by the media to interpret breaking developments in a story that drew journalists from around the world.

Early reports

In 1979, Kirk Wilson — later mayor of Carlisle Borough — was a reporter for a TV station in Harrisburg. He was in the newsroom early on March 28 to pick up visual aids for a media relations course he was going to teach to state police cadets.

“We heard something on the scanner about Three Mile Island,” Wilson recalled. “The AP (Associated Press) came across with something very brief ... only two to three sentences.”

Within minutes of these initial reports, Wilson was dispatched to the scene with a cameraman to find out what was going on. Other news outlets were responding to the incident.

“Everybody was looking at the cooling towers wondering if the condensation contained the radiation,” Wilson said. “Nobody was familiar with nuclear energy. We did not know what questions to ask.”

The most important query of the time was whether the government would order a mass evacuation.

Then as now, Jack Murray was president of the New Cumberland borough council. When word first surfaced of a radiation leak, he was at work as the manager of business and special accounts for Bell Telephone in downtown Harrisburg.

“It was my job to see to it that everybody got service,” Murray recalled. “We were deluged by requests for special circuits for news media people. It was a big worldwide story. Everybody wanted to be the first with the most.”

What Bell management decided to do was to offer enhanced service to the media on a first-come, first-served basis, Murray said. He remembers how a crew was specially tasked with running a large cable down a street in Middletown just to accommodate the extra demands placed the system.

Exodus

The same day word surfaced of a possible radiation leak, New Cumberland Borough officials held the first of many meetings on how to respond to the crisis and a possible evacuation.

Several gatherings were attended by county emergency preparedness staff and local first-responders along with representatives from the National Guard and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The TMI incident prompted borough staff to go door-to-door in an effort to document which local residents may have special transportation needs in the event of an evacuation. The county trained police and fire personnel on the use of a pen-sized device that can detect radiation.

Prior to that crisis, a typical emergency for New Cumberland was flooding, Murray said. “It was a hurried time. There were all kinds of rumors flying around. People were scared. The emotions around this thing were incredible.”

From one section of New Cumberland came the report that all the birds in the neighborhood had died from radiation. Investigators found the body of a single bird that had been dead for three weeks.

A councilman heard a rumor that Gov. Richard Thornburgh had arranged for the transport of his dogs to western Pennsylvania, and that was a sure sign of an impending evacuation order.

“We had anti-nuclear folks come out in large numbers,” Murray said. “It was all gloom and doom. We were trying to keep things together. Some people took the bull by the horns and got their families out of there.” By the end of the crisis, just over half the borough population left New Cumberland and stayed with relatives. This included Murray’s wife and three sons.

From the start, Dickinson College faculty and staff mobilized resources to keep the public informed of developments and to educate residents and the media on the issue of nuclear power.

“We set up the monitoring almost immediately because we had the equipment and knew people were worried,” Laws said. “We called The Sentinel every four hours.”

She said social scientists on campus talked about the psychological effect of the crisis. While a flood or fire can be seen and avoided, radiation is much more subtle.

“People were very afraid,” said Laws, who first heard of the March 28 radiation leak from co-workers listening to National Public Radio.

News of the crisis came just days before Dickinson College students were due to go on spring break. The fear was enough to expedite plans.

“A lot of parents came down in the middle of the night to pick up students,” Laws said. Within a few days, the student body was down by half and the college had decided to start spring break early.

Laws knew the fear, while understandable, was unfounded at least locally.

Prevailing winds for Cumberland County are west to east, meaning there would be a substantial delay before any radiation released from the plant would reach Carlisle, Laws said. She said that throughout the crisis, monitoring stations throughout the local area only registered normal background radiation while radiation levels on the West Shore were only equivalent to that received through an additional chest x-ray.

Afterward

Gradually, the situation calmed down as both the media and general public learned more about nuclear power and what happened that day in the Unit 2 reactor, Wilson said. “There was a great deal of mistrust about the utility.”

What helped to ease the fear was a tour of the plant by President Jimmy Carter and Rosalynn Carter and by Gov. Thornburgh and his wife on April 1, 1979, Wilson said. Carter was also accompanied on the tour by Harold Ray Denton, director of the U.S. Nuclear Agency and the president’s personal adviser for the TMI accident. Both Wilson and Murray had high praise for Denton.

“He was a good communicator,” Wilson said. “People believed what he said.”

Murray added Denton had a calming effect on a lot of people. “He was doing his best to keep everybody informed. His handling of the whole situation defrayed a lot of the anxiety.”

That November, Murray was invited with other borough officials to tour TMI and listen as Metropolitan-Edison officials explained what they believe had happened on the day of the incident.

For years after the crisis, a TMI representative made regular reports to the borough council on the status of the power plant and municipal officials were involved in various drills and exercises designed to improve emergency response.

Email Joseph Cress at jcress@cumberlink.com or follow him on Twitter @SentinelCress

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