25 years after the accident, here's what was said

Just because a quarter-century has passed since the accident at Three Mile Island doesn't mean we should shut up about it.

SARA KELLY, Philadelphia Weekly, March 3, 2004

"On March 28, 1979, and for several days thereafter--as a result of technical malfunctions and human error--Three Mile Island's Unit 2 Nuclear Generating Station was the scene of the nation's worst commercial nuclear accident. Radiation was released, a part of the nuclear core was damaged, and thousands of residents evacuated the area. Events here would cause basic changes throughout the world's nuclear power industry."

--PENNSYLVANIA HISTORICAL AND MUSEUM COMMISSION PLAQUE DEDICATED IN 1999

 


IT WAS A GREAT DAY for a nuclear disaster. Unseasonably warm for late March. Overcast with little wind. Static. Still. So whatever radiation leaked out would be slow to blow town.

Of course it wasn't such a great day for the people of Middletown and the other sleepy boroughs along the Susquehanna south of Harrisburg. In fact, it was their worst day ever.

 


FOUR A.M., AND THE SUN wouldn't rise over the imposing Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station for a couple more hours. A crew was busy doing routine maintenance--flushing out a filter in a cooling system for the plant's No. 2 reactor.

When the workers were finished, the few ounces of water that remained in the pipes got sucked through the system to the air-controlled valves that ran the main turbines. The turbines shut down suddenly, forcing a high-pressure plume of steam into the air high above the island. Windows vibrated in homes a quarter-mile from the plant, jerking residents awake.

Sensing the pressure drop, a safety mechanism stopped the nuclear reaction. As pressure in the reactor increased, a release valve opened. But instead of closing after pressure returned to normal, the valve remained open for more than two hours, spewing thousands of pounds of radioactive sludge onto the floor of a containment building and exposing some 5 feet of the reactor's core. Tons of enriched uranium began hurtling toward meltdown.

 


THE SCARIEST THING about the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island was that no one knew what it meant. It would take days to learn how close south central Pennsylvania--and possibly even the entire East Coast, with ripple effects felt around the globe--came to a radiation release so devastating it would render the affected areas unlivable for as long as anyone could imagine. And it would be years before scientists realized that while the core didn't melt through the reactor floor and tunnel all the way to China, its temperature had approached 4,300 degrees. Had it gotten much hotter, uranium would've run like water.

Then there was the hydrogen bubble. The heat and steam generated from the zirconium (yes, just like those beautiful fake diamonds they hawk on the Home Shopping Network) covering the fuel rods started a chemical reaction that produced hydrogen. And hydrogen, old-timers will recall, was what turned the Hindenburg into a floating inferno.

Plant workers realized that hydrogen had been building up inside the reactor for hours when internal air pressure shot up suddenly during an eight-second explosion that shook the control room and packed the wallop of several thousand-pound bombs.

Air monitors later revealed increasing oxygen levels in the reactor, a likely result of radiation so intense it broke the chemical bonds that hold water together. As hydrogen and oxygen levels continued to increase, so did fears that TMI's Unit 2 would become an unstoppable 400-ton hydrogen bomb.

H-bombs are 100 to 1,000 times more powerful than atomic bombs. The A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki killed more than 100,000 people and injured nearly as many. The potential for nuclear annihilation was profound.

Retired University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine radiology professor Ernest Sternglass, a man many perceive to breathe rare air on the fringes of the antinukes community, argues that all atomic bombings (including those controlled tests staged in the South Pacific and the American Southwest after World War II) contribute to health problems around the world. Don't even get him started on nuclear power plants, which, he argues, do their greatest damage on a daily basis, when things are running smoothly.

Despite the plant's and politicians' best efforts to maintain a cheery exterior (showing about the most bravado of his presidency, Jimmy Carter bravely--or stupidly, depending on who's talking--toured TMI during the drama's height), things were running anything but smoothly days after the accident, when Washington grew so worried about the bubble that it dispatched a Nuclear Regulatory Commission team to TMI.

Once there, workers jury-rigged a "hydrogen recombiner" and installed 150,000 pounds of lead brick to shield the device, just in case. The bomb threat quickly dissipated, thanks mostly to the venting of radioactive emissions into the air and radioactive sludge into the Susquehanna River.

While most locals expressed relief when they heard the hydrogen bubble had been popped, few fully knew at what expense.

 


EVEN THOSE MOST DIRECTLY affected have a tough time recalling exactly where they were or what they were doing when they got the news. "It wasn't like hearing when Kennedy was shot," says retired three-term Lancaster mayor Arthur Morris, whose understanding of how events unfolded on that fateful spring morning in 1979 was little better back then.

After all, he adds, he wasn't convinced anything significant was happening till enough information leaked out. And even then he couldn't be sure.

"If you hear there's an accident at TMI, you don't know what that means," says Morris, who still lives in Lancaster. Though the city is a relatively safe 23 miles from TMI, it has a vested interest in what happens there since most of its drinking water comes from the Susquehanna below the plant. But as far as he knows, says Morris, the water's always tested normal.

 


AN ORAL HISTORY PROJECT Dickinson College professor Lonna Malmsheimer coordinated shortly after the accident revealed a surprisingly apathetic public. Many interviewees from the Carlisle community surrounding Dickinson--which is also some 23 miles from TMI--didn't realize there'd been an accident until a day or two after it happened. Some hadn't even known TMI existed.

Locals who recalled enough to talk about the partial meltdown's impact on the community during interviews in 1979 have even less to say about it now. They're hardly hesitant to talk about it, they say. Sure, tens of thousands of people evacuated, but for them it wasn't that big a deal.

Nancy Mellerski, a professor of French and film, was in her second year at Dickinson when the accident happened. In an interview Malmsheimer conducted shortly afterward, Mellerski, like most of the 400-plus others interviewed for the project, kept the conversation light.

She and her husband stayed in Carlisle, resisting the temptation to leave even as concerns over the hydrogen bubble drove off many of their fellow professors, Dickinson students and local residents.

The main reason they didn't leave, she said at the time, was that they didn't want to move their pets. "They were holding us hostage," she laughed.

Interviews from both then and now suggest that while TMI's potential victims were largely concerned about the prospect of a hydrogen bomb exploding in their own backyards, freakish fantasy scenarios often dominated conversation. Perhaps these diversions helped people keep their minds off of more likely threats.

 


ASIDE FROM THE ACCIDENT itself, the problems most commonly associated with the partial meltdown involved poor communication. In a quarter-century of retrospect, it's been learned that Gov. Dick Thornburgh and even President Jimmy Carter, who toured the plant just four days after the accident (to the fiendish delight of the Saturday Night Live writers who penned the famous Pepsi Syndrome skit), didn't know the full story.

Most of the interviews conducted with locals at the time involved humor born of fear. It didn't help that The China Syndrome--about a TV reporter investigating a conspiracy to cover up safety lapses at a nuclear power plant--had just been released, and even received a big box-office bump after the accident.

In her 1979 interview Mellerski spoke at length about jibes she endured from friends and family who lived outside the area. Most were about mutation--that the couple would wake up one morning to find that their cats had grown into saber-toothed tigers.

Both Children of the Damned and Godzilla came up in conversation. There was a joke about using a hot dog like a canary in a coal mine: When it cooked in your hand, it was time to leave. There was another one about putting X-ray film under your pillow at night. And some inscrutable poop joke that brought new meaning to "nuclear waste."

Twenty-five years later, Mellerski says she rarely thinks of the accident. She can't remember a single one of those old meltdown jokes--which is no one's loss, surely.

But she does say plant safety did occur to her on the terrifying morning of 9/11, when the third hijacked plane went off the radar somewhere over central Pennsylvania. The thought still sends shivers.

 


THE TMI VISITORS' CENTER might as well be a highway rest stop: a couple short brick '50s-style bathrooms and a historic marker. Except the road in front is no highway, and you hardly need a plaque to know what happened here.

In the shadow of four concrete cooling towers--almost 400 feet each--this squat earth-tone building sits shuttered. Instead of twin stalls and a cold-water sink, there are barren chrome clothing racks and other lonely reminders of the storefront's mercantile past. Hard as it may be to believe, this was Three Mile Island's gift shop not too long ago.

It's a shame, says Eric Epstein, head of both antinukes organization Three Mile Island Alert and of the nonpartisan EFMR Monitoring Group, which takes hourly radiation readings at more than a dozen locations around the plant--including right here at the visitors' center. "I used to get all my Christmas presents here."

Then there's the plaque. Five years ago, at the 20th anniversary of TMI's partial meltdown, the incident officially became part of Pennsylvania history. Still, there's something strange about seeing the words "worst commercial nuclear accident" rendered in old-timey type beneath the commonwealth's stately equine crest.

But in the end it's just another head-scratching monument to the tension over the years between the folks who argue that the key to avoiding even more harrowing nuclear accidents in the future is never forgetting what happened in the past, and those who just want it all to go away.

"In the last 25 years we've been lucky," muses Epstein.

 


FIVE YEARS AGO, in time for the 20th anniversary, this joint was jumping. We're not talking street carnival, exactly, but for a nuclear accident anniversary, things were about as festive as they can get.

In those simpler days of early 1999, the gift shop was hopping. A PR flack for the plant's then-owners took a reporter to lunch in an employee cafeteria and even convinced her to thrust her hand into the innocuous waters of a TMI cooling tower. (Five years and still cancer-free!)

She toured the island's undeveloped south end, where plant employees watched wildlife and stocked their arrowhead collections. And she heard about efforts to install a fish ladder and to send a Civil War-era skeleton found on the island to the state historical society for analysis.

That was then. This is 2004, and TMI may be no less salubrious, but it is a whole lot less friendly. And that can't bode well for the region's future safety.

Now, except for a couple cars and a full bin of outgoing mail from the plant--including important-looking packages addressed to the Chicago home office--tucked away in a makeshift mailbox with a door that doesn't seem to close, the visitors' center's parking lot is empty.

A plant spokesperson traces the current media-unfriendly environment to heightened terrorism risks since 9/11. Yet company mail is left in an empty parking lot, and locals tell tales of civilians accessing the island by boat or by simply driving past the guard booth. And on at least three occasions since 9/11, the plant's warning sirens have proven defective during tests.

The visitors' center is a straight shot across the river--within a bazooka's range, adds Epstein, sunnily--of TMI's matched sets of twin towers.

 


ERIC EPSTEIN WON'T SHUT UP about Three Mile Island. Lots of locals feel the way he does about it. But few can stomach the fight.

Ask him about the plant and he'll invoke Kafka or Carville. Ask him if he's always so hyper and he'll direct you to his ex-wife. Catch him on the phone before your morning coffee and you might as well give up.

The man has energy. So the obsession makes sense.

The plant's most vocal critic since even before the accident, the frenetic 44-year-old has managed to turn his TMI obsession into an all-consuming career. His funny, often manic approach to the subject has made him famous--or infamous, depending on who's talking.

Epstein's become so well known he's now trying to parlay his name into a stint in the Pennsylvania Senate. Without TMI, he'd have no chance. As a Democrat here, he may still have none.

Born in nearby Harrisburg, on whose outskirts he now lives, and radicalized by his college days out west, Epstein started the watchdog group TMI Alert in 1977, three years after the island's first power plant went online and two years before its second started up, partially melted down and was shuttered for good--all within a couple months in early 1979.

It's not hard to see why Epstein returned to his Pennsylvania homeland. Picturesque even during winter's steel-gray depths, the Susquehanna River Valley's all rolling hills and manicured pastures punctuated by the occasional hardwood stand.

Holding its frosty tinge for more than half the year, the land still betrays its pioneer days. From the tops of the silt-rounded hills down to the slow, shallow riverbanks, human progress seems an afterthought. Acres of organic contours under a winter-white sky.

Then, over almost any high hill within 10 miles of the plant, the quartet of concrete towers rises like a salt shaker outcropping from the Susquehanna's center, breaking the bucolic spell. Though they're not directly involved in energy generation, the towers remain, in most people's minds, a sobering symbol of nuclear power.

 


THREE MILE ISLAND IS ACTUALLY two power plants--Unit 1 and Unit 2. The former is still generating power that feeds into the grid most of us tap for our electricity. It's changed hands a couple times since the accident, landing most recently with AmerGen, which, like PECO, is now owned by Chicago's Exelon. Unlike its predecessor, AmerGen sees little need to broker positive community relations in the wake of 9/11.

Running a power plant is serious business, after all. Especially when your plant's the nation's most high-profile--conveniently located a dirty-bomb's toss from the Harrisburg International Airport. But why talk dirty bomb when the Nuclear Regulatory Commission already admitted that TMI's reactor buildings couldn't withstand the direct impact of a jet the size of those that struck the World Trade Center?

FirstEnergy, which gained fame last August when a large portion of its northeast grid failed, causing blackouts in New York and beyond, owns TMI's cooked Unit 2. The company wound up with this ugly hunk of nuclear waste through a merger deal and is simply holding onto it till either another ownership shuffle or till Unit 1 closes and the whole island can be retired.

Epstein doubts the damaged reactor will ever be disassembled, the land beneath it returned to its natural state. It's not clear that would even be possible.

There are two big barriers standing between TMI and a clean slate: money and technology. Did we mention money? Lots of it.

The federal government mandates a fund for the decommissioning of the nation's nuclear power plants, but there's nowhere near enough money in the pot to cover the astronomical expense. Power customers have already been hit up for more than their share of "stranded costs" since the industry was deregulated last decade. How much more will they have to ante up to restore a wild Three Mile Island?

But why bother arguing how to pay for it when we don't even know how to do it?

The dead reactor sat untouched for years after the accident, the full extent of damage to its core a mystery. In the wake of international notoriety that made Three Mile Island the butt of endless corny jokes, TMI Unit 1, which had been shut down for refueling and maintenance at the time of the accident, couldn't restart till the Nuclear Regulatory Commission determined the plant's then-owners, GPU Nuclear, would operate it safely.

As Unit 1 restarted in 1985, workers first ventured into Unit 2 to begin defueling--a process that dragged on for eight years and that remains incomplete to this day.

Asked to describe the photos he's seen of the mess in Unit 2, Epstein says, simply, "nuclear nachos."

TMI's Unit 2 is among the most toxic spots on the planet--a nuclear waste site so hot no one's been close enough to find out exactly what's happening inside. Nor will anyone for decades, at least, after its sister plant is decommissioned.

Though about 99 percent of the fuel has been removed from Unit 2, cleanup will have to wait till Unit 1 is retired--which could be some 30 years from now, if AmerGen's license gets extended by the requisite two decades.

What happens till then is anyone's guess. Lacking adequate cash for a complete cleanup, it's seeming increasingly likely that Unit 2 will wind up "entombed" in a massive concrete sarcophagus, a gift that keeps giving to hundreds--maybe thousands--of future generations. Assuming human life lasts here that long.

Till there's the proper technology and the money needed to employ it, little will be known about the full extent of damage to Unit 2. The concrete is getting old. Cracks have been reported in metal samples taken from the bottom of Unit 2's reactor vessel. There's some speculation that rainwater is soaking into the reactor basement through holes too small to see. And if water's getting in, isn't it likely that at least a little radiation's leaking out?

 


AT THE BACK END OF THE LOT, behind the TMI Memorial Rest Stop, sits the plant's training center. Though PW was allowed inside it five years ago, when GPU was still in charge, it's now off-limits. True enough, with its colorful flashing buttons, and switches and dials direct from the Atomic Age, it could only make the nuclear power industry look even more outdated and dangerous.

But danger, at TMI, is clearly in the eye of the beholder.

In the space between the vacant visitors' center and the training center sits a dead vegetable garden surrounded by a chain-link fence. On a sign that describes the "Terrestrial Environmental Study Area," "GPU Nuclear" has been crossed out in black magic marker.

The Terrestrial Environmental Study Area is a plot the size of a parking spot that TMI plants yearly to test radiation levels in locally grown produce. Never mind that the visitors' center sits between the plant and the garden, and that the winds from the plant usually blow in another direction.

GPU's 1998 Radiological Environmental Monitoring Report listed nothing but normal levels in the cabbage, tomatoes and sweet corn grown that year. (AmerGen wouldn't supply a more current report.) Much more interesting are the report's "rodent results," derived from autopsies conducted on three mice--yes, three--found around the plant.

Two of the three mice were deemed radiation-free, while the third, reassuringly found in a plant lunchroom, contained a radioactive material that "may be due to Three Mile Island Nuclear Station and/or fallout from prior weapons tests." Too bad GPU's no longer around to explain where weapons tests were being conducted near Harrisburg. (Hello Professor Sternglass!)

The report concluded that, based on a sample of three dead mice, "rodents are not transporting radioactive materials to unrestricted areas." Oh, and the plant also called an exterminator.

 


THERE'S LITTLE DOUBT THAT, thanks in large part to the accident at TMI, there will never be another nuclear power plant built in the U.S. But that doesn't mean a reduced risk of nuclear disaster in the future. If anything, it means higher risks as licenses for aging plants are renewed past their intended life span (about 40 years), capacities are increased, already overworked staffs are slashed and public accountability decreases as terrorism fears increase.

AmerGen's license to operate TMI's Unit 1 is set to expire in 2014. But if TMI's like nearly all the 102 other nuclear power plants now running in this country, its owner will likely apply for and receive an extension that will allow it to keep producing energy for another 20 years. By that time the technology it employs will be almost a century old. And though its infrastructure will be only about half that, that's still a decade longer than the plant was designed to last.

Whether the accident at TMI killed or sickened anyone who lived nearby depends on whom you ask. Since those who like to blame the plant for health problems tend to be dismissed as cranks in this conservative enclave that James Carville famously called (and Eric Epstein repeatedly recalls) Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between, there's pressure to deny.

It's little wonder that Epstein's other pet obsession is the Holocaust. His mission with both issues remains the same: He wants to make sure no one ever forgets.

 


WILLS ARE STRONG IN THIS PART of Pennsylvania. And change is slow in coming.

The promise of free energy, good jobs and economic growth never quite panned out for little Middletown and the tiny riverside boroughs that overlook TMI's portentous towers. But that same stubborn mindset is what keeps locals from admitting they've been duped.

In a conversation at the 20th anniversary, a nurse and now-former Middletown mayor who was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma in 1992 claimed her disease was caused by the hair dye she used for 24 years. She's happily cancer-free today, but she still refuses to cast blame on anyone but herself.

"People deal with the issue by not dealing with it," says Epstein. But even he's not so quick to blame TMI for every illness in the region.

All of us are exposed to low levels of radiation every day, from rocks, soil and the sun. How much radiation exposure a person can safely endure remains up for debate. But the bottom line, says Epstein, is that radiation exposure is cumulative--meaning once it's in your body, it's there to stay. So of course it's important to limit your exposure--"unless you're a dickhead."

Within a couple years of the accident, the plant paid out $20 million in health claims to more than 15,000 local residents who claimed damages of all kinds--including economic--from the accident. An additional $5 million was set aside for the notoriously poorly administered TMI Public Health Fund.

Then in 1985, the year TMI's Unit 1 was restarted, GPU paid out more than $14 million in settlements. But most of the health studies conducted so far seem unusually interested in linking increased rates of disease and death to the stress of merely having survived a nuclear panic.

Ten years after the partial meltdown GPU estimated that two cases of cancer could've possibly resulted from the accident. But the defunct company (it's now part of FirstEnergy) quickly contradicted itself, claiming that "those cases would be undetectable among the 541,000 cancers that will occur naturally in the 2.2 million people who live in the TMI area."

Since the effects of radiation on the body take so long to surface and can't easily be traced back to one particular cause, it's impossible to know exactly how much blame to heap on TMI. And few have the time or attention span to keep up the fight.

That's why Eric Epstein won't shut up. As grating as his shrill harangues may seem to those who are their targets, were he not here to remind us what happened on one great day for a nuclear disaster, the rest of us might not remember.