The Nuclear Accident at Three Mile Island: Day 2

Thursday March 29, 1979

from the President's Commission report

In retrospect, Thursday seemed a day of calm. A sense of betterment, if not well-being, was the spirit for much of the day. Radiation levels remained high at points within the auxiliary building, but off-site readings indicated no problems. The log book kept by the Dauphin County Office of Emergency Preparedness reflects this mood of a crisis passing:

5:45 a.m. Called Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency --Blaisdale, reactor remains under control more stable than yesterday, not back to normal, monitoring Continues by Met Ed, Radiological Health, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

7:55 a.m. Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency - - no danger to public.

11:25 a.m. Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency advised situation same.

3:30 p.m. situation is improving.

6:12 p.m. no change -- not cold yet, continues to improve, slow rate, off-site release controlled.

7:00-9:00 p.m. Pennsylvania Emergency Management says Island getting better.

9:55 p.m. no real measureable reading off-site --no health risk off-site, no emergency, bringing reactor to cold shut down. . . . Radiation monitoring continued. Mid-morning readings showed 5 to 10 millirems an hour on-site and 1 to 3 millirems per hour across the Susquehanna River to the west. No radioactive iodine was detected in the air. The U.S Food and Drug Administration began monitoring food, milk, and water in the area for radiation contamination.

Thursday was a day of questioning. NRC Chairman Joseph Hendrie and several key aides journeyed to Capitol Hill to brief the House Subcommittee on Energy and the Environment and other members of Congress on the accident. Lieutenant Governor Scranton spent several hours in the early afternoon at Three Mile Island, touring the TMI-2 control room and auxiliary building, wearing a radiation suit and respirator during part of his inspection. That same afternoon, Met Ed officials and NRC inspectors briefed several visiting members of Congress, including Rep. Allen Ertel (D-Pa.), whose district includes Three Mile Island, and Sen. John Heinz (R-Pa.). Later in the day, a second Congressional delegation that included Sen. Richard Schweiker (R-Pa.) and Rep. William Goodling (R-Pa.), whose district includes York, Adams, and Cumberland counties, received a briefing.

Thursday was also a day of disquieting discussions and discoveries. Thursday afternoon, a telephone conversation took place between two old acquaintances, Gordon MacLeod, Pennsylvania's Secretary of Health, and Anthony Robbins, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. One important point of that conversation remains in dispute. MacLeod recalls that Robbins urged him to recommend an evacuation of people living around Three Mile Island. Robbins denies discussing or suggesting such an evacuation.

Up to this point, MacLeod -- who had taken office only 12 days before the accident -- had offered no recommendations since his department had no direct responsibility for radiological health matters. Now, however, he arranged a conference telephone call with Oran Henderson, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency; Thomas Gerusky, director of the Bureau of Radiation Protection; and John Pierce, an aide to Lieutenant Governor Scranton. MacLeod told them Robbins had strongly recommended evacuation. The others rejected the idea, although they agreed it should be reconsidered if conditions proved worse than they appeared at TMI-2. MacLeod then asked if it might be wise to have pregnant women and children under age 2 leave the area around the nuclear plant. This, too, was rejected Thursday afternoon.

At 2:10 p.m., a helicopter over TMI-2 detected a brief burst of radiation that measured 3,000 millirems per hour 15 feet above the plant's vent. This information was relayed to NRC headquarters, where it created no great concern.

But another release that afternoon, one within NRC limits for radiation releases, did cause considerable consternation. Soon after the accident began Wednesday, Met Ed stopped discharging wastewater from such sources as toilets, showers, laundry facilities, and leakage in the turbine and control and service buildings into the Susquehanna River. Normally, this water Contains little or no radioactivity, but as a result of the accident, Some radioactive gases had contaminated it. The radiation levels, however, were within the limits set by the NRC. By Thursday afternoon nearly 400,000 gallon of this slightly radioactive water had accumulated and the tanks were now close to overflowing. Two NRC officials -- Charles Gallina one site and George Smith at the Region I office told Met Ed they had no objections to releasing the water so long as it was within NRC specifications. Met Ed notified the Bureau of Radiation Protection and began dumping the wastewater. No communities downstream from the plant were informed, nor was the press. When NRC Chairman Hendrie learned of the release, he ordered it stopped. Hendrie did not know the water's source, and he was concerned about the impact on the public of the release of any radiation, no matter how slight. Some 40,000 gallons had entered the river when the dumping ceased around 6:00 p.m. Both NRC officials on-site and the Governor's aides realized that authorizing release of the wastewater would be unpopular, and neither was eager to do so. Yet the tanks still were close to overflowing. After hours of discussion, agreement was reached on the wording of a press release that the state's Department of Environmental Resources issued, which said DER "reluctantly agrees that the action must be taken." Release of the wastewater resumed shortly after midnight.

Late Thursday afternoon, Governor Thornburgh had held a press conference. At it, the NRC's Charles Gallina told reporters the danger was over for people off the Island. Thornburgh distrusted the statement at the time, and events soon confirmed his suspicion. At 6:30 p.m., Gallina and James Higgins, an NRC reactor inspector, received the results of an analysis of the reactor's coolant water. It showed that core damage was far more substantial than either had anticipated. At 10:00 p.m., Higgins telephoned the Governor's office with the new information and indicated that a greater possibility of radiation releases existed. Nothing had changed inside the plant, only NRC's awareness of the seriousness of the damage. Yet Higgins' call foretold events only hours away.

- - - end of Day 2 narrative - - -

Day 3