'Meltdown' film a reminder of Pa.'s nuclear past

Katherine Ranzenberger

It’s been 37 years since one of the world's worst nuclear meltdowns happened only 30 miles north of York City in Dauphin County,

Although studies since then indicated the five-day ordeal at Three Mile Island had "negligible effects on the physical health" of area residents, one former Yorker disagrees.

"Meltdown" the film is set in Pennsylvania after the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown.

Health concerns are very real, said Jill Murphy Long, a filmmaker originally from York County. Murphy Long now lives in Oregon, but she said she is coming back to York and Dauphin counties to gather more information from people who were in the area when the meltdown happened for her latest project.

“Meltdown” is a drama film based on Murphy Long's and other residents’ lives, including her own diagnosis of a brain tumor and her brother’s same diagnosis. Her brother also had thyroid and skin cancers.

Jill Murphy Long with her brother after skiing Telluride, Colorado, after his brain surgery and skin cancer, but before his thyroid cancer and before Murphy Long's brain surgery.

​“As a crow flies, east York, Pennsylvania, is less than 13 miles south of Three Mile Island,” Murphy Long said. “The prevailing winds on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, averaged 9.4 mph and pushed the radioactive plume south and southeast and also on the five following days, blanketing my neighborhood of Penn Oaks South.”

The meltdown: At 4 a.m. on that day, TMI’s second reactor experienced a malfunction that caused the steam generator that removed heat to stop functioning, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  By 11 a.m. that day, the White House was informed, atmospheric radiation levels were being tested and nonessential personnel were off the grounds.

The NRC said the event was contained by the evening of March 28, but concerns came two days later on March 30 when radiation was released from the plant’s auxiliary building, a move performed to relieve pressure on the primary system and avoid curtailing the flow of coolant to the core.

Pennsylvania Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh worked with the NRC to evacuate people in a five-mile radius who would be vulnerable to radiation, including pregnant women and preschool-aged children.

“Although TMI-2 suffered a severe core meltdown, the most dangerous kind of nuclear power accident, consequences outside the plant were minimal,” the NRC website reads. “Unlike the Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents, TMI-2’s containment building remained intact and held almost all of the accident’s radioactive material.”

Findings: The NRC states on its website that thousands of environmental samples of air, water, vegetation and soil have been collected by government agencies. Very low levels of radionuclides could be attributed to the releases from the accident, the website reads.

“However, comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well respected organizations, such as Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh, have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment,” according to the NRC website.

Murphy Long said she is not convinced by these findings, as many of the people she has talked to from the area have also experienced health ramifications such as cancers and neurological diseases.

“Unfortunately, a walking tour of my neighborhood and a trip through the pages of my Central York High School yearbook proves the very opposite to be true,” she said. “I believe there is a strong link between these lives that were lost or compromised by the 1979 nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island.”

Back in York: Murphy Long is coming back to York and Dauphin counties on April 13 to start filming some scenes in the area affected by the accident. She is looking for extras for the film as well.

The filmmaker is hosting events in York and Middletown on Friday, April 22, and Saturday, April 23, for auditions, fundraising and screening a teaser trailer of the film. The locations of the events have not yet been released.

Jill Murphy Long works with crew members in the newsroom scene of her film "Meltdown."

Community members are also welcome to share their stories at the events or on the website meltdownthefilm.com.

The film should be premiering at film festivals in spring 2017, according to Murphy Long. Distribution of the film starts in 2017.

-- Reach Katherine Ranzenberger at kranzenberger@yorkdispatch.com