Thirty-five years ago this week, a spokesman for the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant announced that radioactive gas from one of two reactors on an island in the Susquehanna River had been released.
The next day, I was in Harrisburg, PA, a reporter from the Rutland Herald’s Vermont Press Bureau sent 400 miles down I-87 to Harrisburg, Pa. to report the story. It was a typical move for an operation that consistently punched above its weight class. Nuclear power had become a huge issue in New England and my having zero experience reporting on the technology didn’t matter to my editor.
Many of the some 300 reporters and news staff from around the world who joined me had about the same level of expertise, trying to get straight understandable answers from a utility that seemed to have little interest in either. It didn’t help that most of us didn’t even know what questions to ask, subsisting on official handouts in makeshift pressrooms in the Statehouse and a local gym.
Temperatures in the reactor continued to rise Thursday, we were told. The utility discharged contaminated water and gas without telling the public and openly contradicted the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff in press briefings that included more than a little shouting. Harold R. Denton, the NRC director of reactor regulation and spokesman onsite, said the scene those days “was like falling into an Einstenian black hole.”
By Friday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture closed six meat-processing plants in the Harrisburg area and Gov. Richard Thornburgh recommended pregnant women and preschoolers stay at least five miles from the plant.
Saturday, the Associated Press led a story this way: “a gas bubble inside the crippled nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island is showing signs of becoming potentially explosive, complicating decisions on whether to mount risky operation to remove the gas.”
Sunday, President Carter and the First Lady arrived and people interviewed along the motorcade route seemed uplifted, cheering and waving.
Monday, the short-lived tabloid Philadelphia Journal used this lede: “Forty-five thousand people will die and a quarter million will be injured if the nuclear power plant near Harrisburg blows in the next few days, authorities conceded last night.” At Noon the meat plants were allowed to open.
Tuesday a fresh plume of gas was vented from the plant, but the NRC denied it until pressed by reporters who overheard it while monitoring radio traffic.
Wednesday, the reactor was on its way to “cold shutdown” and the threat of a general evacuation of the area eased.
One NRC group studying Three Mile Island was called the “Lessons-Learned Task Force.” A key lesson was confusion and the NRC confessed it needed to “increase the news media and public understanding of how nuclear plants operate, what radiation is and what effects is has on health, and what protective actions will be provided during emergencies.”
Of course. But this was a first time for almost everyone. We needed to know more, starting with reporters. Walter Lippmann said journalism is “the last refuge of the vaguely talented.” Vague was too much credit for many of us when it came to the sciences. Here are some of the exchanges I remember and participated in.
“Yes, Roentgen Equivalents in Man, it’s a measure of decay.
“’Decay in man?’
“What’s this we hear about hydrogen leaching from the zirconium alloy? Is it combustible?
“You mean the cladding?
“I’m not sure. I guess.
“Well, that’s an interesting question.”
“A discussion of important pending legislation in the Legion Hall has been cancelled,” said the radio deejay one day as I drove through Middletown. “It will be rescheduled if there is no irreversible contamination.” She paused as she heard her words and the station fell silent for a second. “But then…there isn’t irreversible contamination…I mean we shouldn’t say anything like that yet.”
The industry said an accident like this couldn’t happen. The movie The China Syndrome premiered less than two weeks before TMI and it was dismissed as propaganda and fantasy. But then-Dartmouth president John G. Kemeny, appointed to head the official national inquiry, said of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, “No one is running it. I lost total confidence in this agency.”
For many including me, it was the first time inside a major event where no source was consistently credible. Not just politicians. They’d betrayed us before and recently. Now scientists and engineers couldn’t be trusted. It made fear personal and reassurance scarce. Kemeny said, “Mental stress was the most serous health problem of Three Mile Island.”
People bought guns and ammo and food. The Sentinel Arms Co. of Middletown sold 2,500 rounds of ammunition a day, more than six time normal, and hundreds of dollars a day of freeze dried food.
“You’ve got people who are concerned,” owner Grant Stapleton told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “They don’t know what it is they’re concerned about. They can’t comprehend radiation. They can’t see it. I think people are turning their fears to things they can comprehend, like looters, burglars, or going hungry.”
When the immediate story was played out a week after it began, I took a couple of days before heading back, driving south out of the valley into the high air of West Virginia. A sign on a roadside produce stand was all about fear, credibility and trust: “All Native Products. Nothing From Pennsylvania.”