Feature- 41 Years Ago Pennsylvanians Woke Up To A Much Different World Too -- The Accident At Three Mile Island
Forty-one years ago on March 28, Pennsylvanians woke up to a much different world too -- the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Dauphin County.
The fear and uncertainty about what was going to happen-- Was there a “bubble” wasn’t there a bubble? Should we evacuate or not? Have we already been “irradiated” invisibly and don’t know it? These things still haunt everyone who lived through those days.
It’s not unlike what everyone is going through today.
But understand this-- in was PUBLIC servants like Gov. Dick Thornburgh, Tom Gerusky (DER), Harold Denton (NRC), President Jimmy Carter, Cliff Jones (DER) and many more that got us through this by giving us calm, measured leadership.
And it will be the PUBLIC servants like our medical professionals and first responders at all levels and everyone working together that will get us through our current crisis.
At 3:53 a.m., March 28, 1979, the cascading failures of valves, pumps, gauges and reactor operators combined to produce the worst accident in the U.S. commercial nuclear power industry.
The accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant Unit 2 near Middletown, a few miles downstream from Harrisburg. For 48 hours, the reactor was dangerously out of control.
Anyone living in and around T.M.I. remembers exactly where they were on March 30 when they heard Gov. Dick Thornburgh order all preschool children and pregnant women within five miles of the plant to evacuate and later everyone within 10 miles to close their windows and stay indoors.
Seven thousand people were evacuated and perhaps a hundred thousand more fled.
A hydrogen bubble formed in the reactor bringing it very close to exploding. Within a few days, scientists reduced the size of the bubble. The cooling down process, however, took a month and the radioactive plant would take years to decontaminate.
Though no lives were lost in the accident, the uncertainty and fear it caused gave people a new sense of vulnerability. The day after the accident, 35,000 protesters in Hanover, West Germany, chanted, "We all live in Pennsylvania."
In contrast to Unit 2, Unit 1 at Three Mile Island has operated successfully since it first began commercial operations in 1974 producing electricity for Pennsylvania and the Mid-Atlantic region.
As a result of the accident, emergency planning and response programs at the local, state and federal level were dramatically improved around nuclear plants and state efforts to monitor radiation and provide direct oversight at these facilities also underwent significant changes.
Here are remembrances from that day by two of the people who were touched in unique ways by the accident –
-- Thomas M. Gerusky, the late Director of the Bureau of Radiation Protection at the then-Department of Environmental Resources on March 28, 1979, and who was in charge of the state’s technical response to the accident; and
-- James M. Seif, former Secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, and in 1979 administrative assistant to Gov. Dick Thornburgh.
It’s a Biggie – Some Thoughts on the Accident at Three Mile Island
By Thomas M. Gerusky
Last week, I was interviewed by the producers of a proposed Public Television Network show which will provide a 20-year update on the Three Mile Island accident. That accident occurred on March 28, 1979.
To prepare for the interview, I went back to my notes and published reports of the accident to refresh my memory. As I wandered through the documents, the memories of that time and the aftermath of the accident came slowly into focus. The following are some of the thoughts that returned.
It is difficult to discuss the accident and the Commonwealth’s response to it without reviewing the attitudes of the public, the press, the nuclear industry, the regulators and the technical world. Nuclear power was touted as the safest form of supplying energy. Nuclear reactors were designed and operated to run without a serious accident. New nuclear power stations were being proposed all over the country.
The staff of the Bureau of Radiation Protection and the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency had prepared emergency response plans for an accident at those power reactors situated in the state and for accidents at other facilities and on the transportation routes for spent fuel and other sources of radioactivity. Infrequently, transportation accidents had taken place and we had responded. In no case was there any serious release to the environment nor any exposure of the public.
A plan had been drawn up for the Three Mile Island complex. It is interesting to note that a public meeting on that plan was held in Middletown, just north of the reactors, only a short time before the accident and few people showed up.
At approximately 7 a.m. on the morning of March 28, I received a call from our bureau’s emergency officer, Bill Dornsife, a nuclear engineer who had previously worked at Three Mile Island, who informed me that he had received a call from the island concerning an emergency that was occurring there. He gave me some details, but the words I will always remember were "It’s a biggie." The procedure was for me to proceed to the office while other staff members contacted other individuals and agencies to provide them with the information.
I arrived at the office around 7:20 a.m. From that time on and continuing for the next 30 days, our office was open and staffed around the clock. Bureau and department technical and administrative staff assisted in providing the coverage. It became a team effort and continued a team effort through the cleanup.
Although we had established an open phone line with the reactor, the lack of early information was a major concern. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal regulator of the facility, had not yet arrived on site and even after they arrived, little new information was forthcoming.
Metropolitan Edison Company, the operator of TMI, had stated through its public relations office in Reading that the accident was under control and that no serious releases of radioactivity had occurred. Our information from the radiation protection staff on the island indicated otherwise.
As the seriousness of the accident became more apparent, more Pennsylvania officials became involved, first Lt. Gov. William Scranton, and then Gov. Dick Thornburgh. The administration had just been sworn into office the previous January and their responsibilities under emergency conditions were just becoming known to them. Throughout the course of the accident, both men exhibited professionalism and leadership. I was really impressed with the way the governor listened to the information he was receiving, asked very pointed questions and then made up his mind after reviewing all of the facts.
Two days later, Friday, March 30, was a day I will always remember.
We had been receiving reports from the island that controlled releases of radioactive gases were occurring. Monitoring was being performed from a helicopter situated above the release point and off-site.
The information concerning the levels was being relayed by phone to the NRC emergency desk at the commission’s headquarters in Washington. There was confusion concerning the data and Washington incorrectly thought that the levels reported at the release point were occurring off-site. As a result, they contacted the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency and recommended an evacuation. From that point on, chaos reigned until the governor contacted the chairman of the NRC to question its recommendation.
On a subsequent telephone call from the chairman to the governor, he told the governor that the NRC had no idea what was happening inside that reactor and, when questioned about the need for an evacuation, he stated that if his wife and daughter were in the immediate vicinity of TMI, he would get them out.
Gov. Thornburgh had no choice, and started a voluntary evacuation program for the most vulnerable of the population, pregnant women and small children. The governor also requested that senior NRC staff be sent to the island to take over the accident response. That brought Harold Denton and many NRC staff members here. Someone said later that it was impossible to "run" an accident response from Washington.
The ensuing days were filled with tension, the possibility of an explosion from a hydrogen bubble growing inside the reactor, the visit of President Jimmy Carter and the governor to the plant, the planning for a massive evacuation of the residents of the area in case things got worse, continuing releases of inert radioactive gases from the stack, the hoard of press from all over the world, and finally, the subsequent relaxation of the recommendation for evacuation based upon the knowledge that there was no potential for an explosion.
For us, the NRC, the utility and the public in the vicinity of TMI, the cleanup of the reactor over the next 10 years, the need to vent the remaining radioactive Krypton from the building before anyone could enter, learning that the fuel had melted and the expenditure of over a billion dollars kept the accident in our minds.
The reactor has now been mothballed with considerable radioactive material still inside. It will stay that way until it’s sister reactor, Three Mile Island I, is shut down. They will be decommissioned together, when the next generation also will learn what happened on March 28, 1979.
by James M. Seif
I enjoyed Tom Gerusky’s account of the TMI incident, and would like to add three memorable moments of my own.
The first occurred about 7:30 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979.
Always an early riser, I was settled into my small office in Room 225, Main Capitol, the official address of the Governor’s Suite in Harrisburg. State Trooper Denny Denisevicz and I had just made a "fresh pot"— his had cooked all night as he tended the antique Governor’s Switchboard.
I was administrative assistant to Gov. Dick Thornburgh. My duties were principally as scheduler. (The "Abominable No Man" as he put it.) But only two months had elapsed since inauguration, and all of us were still trying to define our assignments.
My phone rings. Denny says, "a guy from Met Ed wants to reach the Governor to report something." One thing I did know about my job was to step in front of such anonymous reports. I say, "anonymous" because I had just moved to Harrisburg, and had no idea that GPU was a utility and didn’t know that Three Mile Island was a power plant — let alone a nuke.
In any case, the man told me his emergency manual required a call to the governor’s office when there’s a "reportable incident at our plant."
"Okay, what happened?"
"We lost cooling in the reactor, but it’s okay now. We’ve shut down as a precaution."
"REACTOR!!??" (I still hope I didn’t say it that way.)
"Yes, this is a nuclear power plant."
I asked several questions. Did they call local police? State Police? Emergency management people? The nuclear regulators in Washington? Yes to all. Was anyone hurt? No. What about damage to equipment? He didn’t know.
Given the answers to his questions and his calm tone, I concluded that the call was little more than his following the checklist in his manual — and the "call the governor" item was on the checklist as a matter of political caution and not necessary for any real emergency purpose.
It turns out that was, in fact, the origin of the "call the governor" item, but of course, as the crisis developed in the next hours, I felt I had been misled. I can’t recall now if I mentioned any of this to Gov. Thornburgh or not, but I did let him take a scheduled trip out of town that day, and valuable hours were lost.
The second recollection is from late Saturday night, March 31, when the crisis reached its most perilous point. Reactor temperature was rising, evacuation was accelerating and a lot of us were getting tired and edgy. After riding around for several hours with State Police Commissioner Dan Dunn, I was especially tense. Dan was a former FBI Special Agent, whom I had known for years, and he was one of the drollest and most cheerful people I knew. But this night, his jaw was clenched.
Back in the governor’s office with other staff, we checked the TV and Saturday Night Live, hosted by the comedians Bob and Ray, came on. To our shock, it opened by announcing a contest to pick a new capitol of Pennsylvania!!! We called the network in New York, hoping that the script could be altered by the news of how serious we thought the problem had become. We figured the network — and certainly the sponsors — would not want to add to any panic.
No such luck. An unresponsive switchboard operator said only that he would try to get a message to the theater. To this day, I recall him by the name he carries in that night’s phone log: FNU LNU – First Name Unknown, Last Name Unknown. This was FBI lingo taught to me years before – by Dan Dunn.
Finally, there was an interesting postscript: About six weeks after the crisis had passed, Another governor called. Gov. Thornburgh was on the road; and so I took the call.
This governor was also a "rookie" and was calling to glean some of the lessons of TMI. We spoke about the organizational issues of emergency management, local-state relations, medical perils (including panic), the political danger of Congressional Second Guessers, the media circus and so on.
I was impressed because he was one of the few people who was interested in the policy and managerial implications of what had happened, and the only governor that I know of who ever called.
When we were finished, I said, "Thank you for calling, Gov. Clinton."
He said, "It’s Bill. Keep up the good work, Dick!"
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[Posted: March 28, 2020]
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