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: http://www.threemileisland.org/virtual_museum/march28_1979.html or http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/3mile-isle.html