Friday, March 28, 2014

I Survived TMI

Today is the 35th anniversary of an event that once was understood by simply saying three letters:  T - M - I.  If you said those letters, anyone living in Pennsylvania, certainly the East Coast of the U.S. and maybe the entire U.S. knew what you meant--THREE MILE ISLAND.  In fact, when we traveled overseas in the 1980s, if people asked where we were from , we could answer "near TMI" and the listener knew where you came from.

Now, with 35 years between that event and now, people may not remember so clearly.  They will have their own current sense of the potential dangers of living near a nuclear power plant--say Fukushima and everyone knows where that is and what happened.

But for me, TMI was a defining moment--herewith, my thoughts on the 30th anniversary.
Memory is a blessing and a curse.

Thirty years ago on this day a series of occurrences began a chain reaction that almost resulted in a nuclear plant melting down. At the time, the location was unknown to much of the country. In central Pennsylvania, we all knew the familiar sight of the cooling towers--the most recognizable feature of a nuclear power plant. In fact, the power plant at TMI is located very near the runways of the Harrisburg International Airport (no, I am not making up the "international" part). When I flew home last week, our plane came in right over the cooling towers. The sight whisked me back some 30 years, as I recalled the several days of absolute panic wondering what would happen next. I survived TMI.

contemporaneous photo of TMI in 1979

March 28, 1979 was a Wednesday. The specific details of what happened at TMI to set the accident in motion are well-known*. Early in the morning, a valve failed and all the water that cooled the fuel rods drained, leaving them exposed. The emergency back-up cooling system kicked in, but technicians--not understanding what they were seeing on the gages--turned it off. Even though the reactor itself shut down, heat kept building up which resulted in one half the core melting down.

News of what was happening at TMI did not immediately get picked up. If I recall correctly, the first person to break the story was a radio show host. There was no intent to keep things quiet; it was simply a matter of near mass confusion, and many aspects of the situation being unknown. Was the core intact? Had the core melted down at all? If so, how much? Would there be a release of radiation, or not? The local press did not begin covering the news until well into the first day.

By the second day, the news of "an event" at TMI really began to hit the news. At the time, I was working for the Pennsylvania Medical Society. One of my responsibilities was to staff committees--and on Thursday the Commission on Therapeutics had a meeting. The chairman was a physician named Arthur Hayes who was a physician pharmacologist working at the Hershey Medical Center. The meeting was set to begin at 10 a.m. Just as we went into the meeting, word came that the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island was very serious. Since Hershey Medical Center was about 5 miles from the nuclear power plant, Dr. Hayes decided to cancel the meeting and head back to the medical center. It would be a receiving facility if there were any nuclear contamination of people.

When the doctor who chaired the committee decided to cancel the meeting, I knew something BIG was happening. Understandably, news sources did not know the scope of what was going on. I decided to head for home, since my work place was on the west side of the Susquehanna River, and our home was on the east side. If road traffic was going to be restricted, I wanted to be on the same side of the river as our son, who was then 7 years old. I drove from my work place to the elementary school where he was, and gathered him up and went home.

Meltdown is NOT something you want a nuclear power plant to do. A popular movie at the time was The China Syndrome which featured a nuclear power plant accident and an attempted cover-up of the information. Needless to say, for all of us within a ten mile radius of TMI our adrenaline pumps kicked into overdrive.

When day 3--Friday--began, the news at TMI had gotten worse. While the plant had not melted down, a hydrogen bubble had been discovered. The fear was that this bubble could cause the plant to explode which would spew radioactive material over a wide area. While the experts did their best to first understand the situation, and then give advice based on their understanding, the public was genuinely confused. Should we stay or go?

As it happened, my husband was set to go out of town for a training workshop. He left on Friday to go to West Virginia. A family friend of ours had a vacation home in the Poconos that his family was evacuating to, and he offered the place for me and my son to stay. With my husband away, the decision to leave the area was largely up to me. So, I gathered up our son, our dog and cat, a bit of clothing--and drove to the Poconos. As we left our house, our son said plaintively--what about the goldfish? I recall my reaction--the goldfish will have to fend for itself for however long.

By the end of the weekend, the situation was better understood, and it was clear the nuclear event was not going to become any worse. I returned home. No meltdown. No core breach. No hydrogen bubble explosion. No mass radioactive release. But great damage had been done and the plant at TMI remained out of commission until 1985.
So, I survived TMI. Now 30 years later, it is hard to reconstruct the exact sequence of events. My husband was away, so his memories differ from mine. The friend who offered his house has been dead for more than 10 years. My son was far too young to remember. I have my own memories, but I am not tempted to rely on them for unadulterated recollection.

Memory is a blessing and a curse.


*To learn more about TMI, you can go to these two websites: or


Lynne said...

I can't believe that it's been thirty years all ready. It must have been nerve wracking live so close and to have to make those decicions.

possumlady said...

I just saw the China Syndrome on cable a few weeks ago. What a fightening situation!! I do remenmber when TMI happened but being not quite 20 years old and in Minnesota, it seemed like a very far away problem.

Dog_geek said...

Geez, has it really been 30 years? That doesn't seem possible!

Anonymous said...

I remember TMI. I was in Massillon Ohio that weekend for our Annual Regional Conference Meeting. I do recall now that you went to the Poconos and that Carlin was in Pittsburgh. We may have learned that after we got home to Nappanee, Indiana. I recall Glen Pierce was with us that weekend, representing the Board for World Missions. His home then was inn Elizabethtown, PA. He was much more exercised than I. I guess understandably so. His wife was close by within the second concentric circle. Now of course I live much closer to Three Mile Island than then. We pray it will never happen again. Love, Father “C”

Anvilcloud said...

I remember showing China Syndrome in class because it obliquely pertained to something or other that we were studying. I can't remember for sure what that something or other was at the moment, perhaps a short story sci fi unit.

Ginnie said...

I remember that well and how scarey it was. We had just moved to North Carolina from NY State and lived just 40 miles from a big nuclear plant near Raleigh. Your last picture with all the stacks and smoke make me cringe just like I do every time I pass the plant near us.

NCmountainwoman said...

How could that have been 30 years ago? Although no where near the state, I remember it well. You are so correct...memories are both a blessing and a curse.

Climenheise said...

We lived in Nappanee then, and I don't have a clear memory of the events. Then two years later I candidated at a church across the river from TMI(among other places). I remember wondering what the church thought about all of this. No memory of what anyone there replied to my questions.

Beverly said...

I too remember this happening. I am from Memphis. I did not read as much then with little children, but I do remember it on the news...

Jayne said...

So very scary.... I am sure the memories are more etched for those who lived around there. So glad it turned out the way it did.

RuthieJ said...

That must have been pretty scary for you Donna. I don't remember very much about this, but I hope it never happens again.

Tossing Pebbles in the Stream said...

We were so lucky TMI was not a worst disaster.
They were not so lucky at Chernobyl. If you havenever seen the pictures on this website of the dead zone and beyond around the Chernobyl site it is worth doing so to understand how lucky we were in Eastern North America.

Those workers who contained the Chernobyl reactor by encasing it in concrete are heros to the world. some knew that they were sure to die. Others were given little knowledge and protection to understand their fate. To see the field of contaminated equipment used to do the work abandoned there because it is too dangerous to move out of the area. It will rust away to nothing before it would be safe.

I occasionally return to review this site which is both fascinating and horrifying.

People are still being sick and dying from this accident. Some were not even born when the accident occured.

JeanMac said...

I remember that also. Very frightening.

Carolyn H. said...

I survived TMI, too. It was scary, not knowing what was going on. I was home alone. I remember hearing the sirens wailing and knowing what they were for but nothing was then on TV or the radio. What should I do? Should I do anyhing? Scary.

Carolyn H.

Susan Gets Native said...

Well, yeah....but how did the goldfish do?

Anvilcloud said...

Not too long ago, I heard a podcast on memory. Basically, nobody remembers anything exactly. But I am sure that we get pretty close sometimes.

Anyway, my memory tells me that I used to show China Syndrome in my grade 9 English class. The pretext was we were doing a SciFi unit and a post nuclear scenario was mentioned. I also showed Logan's Run in the same unit.

Geoff said...

"My son was far too young to remember". I'd say I was too young to remember clearly. I remember the fear. I remember being taken home from school early. That must have been Friday I guess. I did not remember the original accident being a couple of days earlier.

I do not remember the goldfish at all.

I do remember the family friend who lent us the vacation home joining us and mistakenly thinking the cat kibble on the counter was snack mix (you had used a bowl from the cupboard).

Cheryl said...

I was in college in western, PA. My parents were living in the Phila. area at the time. I remember wondering if my family was at risk, as we started hearing the news. Shortly thereafter, I was invited to interview for a Christian Ed position at Derry Church in Hershey. It took some courage to consider a position so close to TMI, so soon after the accident. But when the position was offered, I accepted, and that was the beginning of our 15 years in Central PA. Fondly remembered.

KGMom said...

Geoff--I have NO recollection of where the goldfish came from. Nor do I remember what happened to it, eventually. Of course, TMI did nothing to the goldfish.
Interesting that you remember the fear--of course, the UNKNOWN was the predominant factor contributing to the fear. Not that the accident was of no import; it was frighteningly close to total disaster--as we can now see given what happened at Fukushima.