After 40 years, Three Mile Island meltdown looms large

MIDDLETOWN — When reporter Michele LeFever Quinn was sent to cover a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor for WKBO radio, she thought it was minor and contained.

It wasn’t until Friday, March 30, 1979 — two days after the partial meltdown that later sent radioactive steam skyward — that she realized its magnitude.

At about 4 a.m. Wednesday, March 28, 1979, a slew of equipment malfunctions at the nuclear power plant offered faulty readings. Control room operators responded with a series of actions that made the situation worse by uncovering the core, which then overheated. 

“I’m watching as the newsmen are getting their families out of the area. I’ll never forget that feeling I felt from the state Capitol,” where she reported from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. that Friday, Quinn said.

A cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., looms behind an abandoned playground, March 30, 1979.  (AP Photo/Barry Thumma)

Quinn still has her notebook from that day, where she wrote, “This is like the nightmarish plot of a movie I wish would end.”

It's been 40 years since the most high-profile nuclear disaster in U.S. history, but its effects on nearby communities and the nuclear industry remain significant. TMI's partial meltdown touched on Cold War-era fears and changed the face of nuclear energy and modern emergency preparation.

No plan: Kevin Molloy was the Dauphin County civil defense/communications director on the day of the accident. Emergency management and preparation just wasn't a priority back then, he said. 

"Selling emergency management ... was like trying to sell life insurance or used cars," Molloy said. "Nobody wanted to be bothered with it."

A group of tourists have their photograph taken by a family member as they pose with cooling towers from Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pa., May 11, 1979. (AP Photo/Fred Prouser)

The focus was mostly on civil defense from outside attacks, he said, and since there was no financial support or enforcement, there was little incentive for local municipalities to create emergency plans.

The "exclusion zone" where people would have to evacuate in the event of an emergency at TMI was 2½ miles, but in the days following the accident, Molloy found himself planning for evacuations within a radius of 5, 10 and 20 miles.

About 680,100 people lived within the 20-mile evacuation zone, which encompassed parts of York, Dauphin, Cumberland, Lancaster, Lebanon and Perry counties. About 235,665 people were affected in York County alone. 

In Dauphin County, there were 42 local government subdivisions, seven school districts, four major hospitals, more than 20 nursing homes, a juvenile detention center and prison, a chemical plant, farms and an international airport within the zone.

“It got so detailed so quickly,” Molloy said, noting that on an hourly basis, he would know how many patients were in a local hospital, what type of patient they were and where in the state they could get a hospital bed or an ambulance. 

"The China Syndrome," a movie depicting a nuclear meltdown in California, had been released 12 days earlier.

That bit of Cold War-era fiction was a little too close to home for some, as it mentioned "an area the size of Pa. would be rendered permanently uninhabitable," said former York City resident Craig Spector, who was 21 at the time.

“I about fell out of my chair," he said.

Safe energy: Nuclear plants were considered safe, Molloy said, with opposition mostly coming from anti-nuclear groups such as Three Mile Island Alert, which was created two years before the accident and fought against the opening of Unit 2 and reopening of Unit 1.

Years later, some say there was a reason to worry. They point to studies from physicians such as Penn State's Dr. David Goldenburg, who made a connection between latent cancers and released radiation.

But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission points to studies by the Environmental Protection Agency and independent researchers that concluded the average radiation exposure increase beyond the background dose after the accident was less than a chest X-ray.

"It all depends on what study you look at," Molloy said.

A Red Cross volunteer leans over to make sure a youngster has everything he wants for lunch at the evacuation center in Hershey Park, Pa., April 4, 1979. Expectant mothers and preschool children were asked to remain at the center for those who live within a 5-mile radius of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

More than 100 people have reported ill health effects later in life, which many attribute to their proximity to the accident, on the Three Mile Island Survivors private Facebook group.

Jill Murphy Long, a York County native who is producing a documentary on health problems related to the accident, compiled a map of 162 people who say they were affected near TMI. 

“I remember the foul taste,” said one of the page’s moderators, Christine Laymen, who said she was walking in Rocky Ridge County Park with her 4-year-old daughter at the time.

Long believes TMI's radiation moved far beyond the 5-mile evacuation zone suggested for pregnant women and preschool-aged children, adding that you "can’t just draw a concentric circle around radiation and say, 'stay right there.'"

Jim Dupes, 64, who lives in Highspire, Dauphin County, a few miles from Middletown, is the son of a then-TMI employee. He remembers his father telling him helicopters were measuring radioactivity and that there were no readings until 1,000 feet, before becoming concentrated at 1,500 feet and then dropping off.

Bad info: Misinformation after the accident was rampant, and Molloy said one of the worst examples was a news conference in which a federal official warned that a hydrogen bubble in the reactor might explode, killing an estimated 50,000 people. 

Molloy remembers calling the White House in response, saying, "What are you idiots doing down there?" An adviser called him back and said everyone had been told not to make any more public statements, he said.

Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, left, announces the closing of schools in the area around the Three Mile Island PWR, on March 30, 1979, in Harrisburg, Pa., after an accident at the nuclear power plant led to the release of radioactive gas from the reactor into the atmosphere. The governor advised the evacuation of small children and pregnant women. Standing at right is Lt. Gov. William Scranton. (AP Photo)

Spector said he heard a radio commentator saying, "Now is not the time to ask questions; now is the time to obey orders," and remembers thinking, "They'll kill us before they'll tell us the truth."

Several said communication improved once Harold Denton of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission began sharing information, and the first-ever Rumor Control Center was created March 31, 1979, to field community concerns.

More than 250 calls came in within the first eight hours, Molloy said, with questions such as “Is the milk in our area contaminated?” or “Is radioactivity contagious?”

Gene Eisman, 75, was on Gov. Dick Thornburgh's staff and fed observations to the recently created Federal Emergency Management Agency.

“The most important thing (I relayed) was how freaked out people were,” he said. “It was chaos.”

Panic: Dupes said the day of the accident was hectic at the start because the warning system consisted of vehicles being driven around with occupants using a megaphone to advise residents to stay indoors and close their windows.

Everyone was in line at the gas stations, he said, and he had to drive a half hour to find one.

More than 140,000 people evacuated, according to The York Dispatch in 2001, though only 5,000 pregnant women and preschool children had been told to do so.

Two mothers along with their children carry signs in front of the State Capitol in Harrisburg, Penn., joining other anti-nuclear power plant demonstrators urging the shut-down of Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, April 8, 1979. The plant had an accident causing radiation to leak into the atmosphere. (AP Photo/Paul Vathis)

Plugged into the anti-nuclear movement at the time, Spector remembers it hit him when he tried to organize a protest in Washington, D.C., but no one showed up in York City to make the trip.

"It was like a ghost town ... (I was) practically the only car on Market Street," Spector said. 

But many said perception of the accident was much worse in outside communities.

The news relayed the panic, Molloy said, but dispatch records showed there were actually fewer vehicle accidents that week than typically. “Not like people were running in circles and freaking out,” he said.

Still, the fear had rippling effects on the local community.

“The economic impact was unreal,” Molloy said. Milk from local dairy farmers was dumped; conventions were canceled. The total economic impact had to be in the millions, he said.

A new nuclear: Since the accident, much in nuclear energy has changed.

Exelon Generation — which owns TMI-1 — has made a number of changes to ensure that the mistakes from 1979 won't happen again. Regulatory oversight of the industry increased considerably after the event.

"The accident that happened in 1979 had a resounding impact on the industry, that’s for sure," said David Fein, Exelon's senior vice president of state governmental and regulatory affairs.

"We have all these third-party organizations now ensuring that our culture is the safest and most reliable out there," and Exelon leads the benchmark for safety, said TMI-1 spokesman Dave Marcheskie.

But for some opponents, it's not enough.

Eric Epstein, of nuclear watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert, remains skeptical of federal watchdogs because regulators work in close proximity to industry executives. 

He points to numerous problems with aging technology from the 1960s and warns that the Price-Anderson Act protects the U.S. nuclear industry with $12 billion in liability insurance to compensate the public in the event of an accident.

Numerous updates in safety and security have been mandated in the nuclear industry since the accident — especially to address the vulnerability of outside attacks following 9/11 and to improve building fortification after the Fukushima, Japan, accident in 2011.

TMI-1's 8-foot thick concrete walls can resist a jumbo jet, tornadoes, projectiles and missiles, officials said.

But despite more serious global nuclear accidents such as Fukushima and the Chernobyl, Ukraine, explosion in 1986, some say fears of similar occurrences in the U.S. are unfounded.

Chernobyl had a graphite block reactor that had no containment building, said Molloy.

"We’re talking apples to oranges,” he said.

Traffic travels north on Route 441 near an entrance to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Londonderry Township, Dauphin County, Friday, March 15, 2019. The plant's Unit 2 reactors have been shut down since the March 28,1979, partial meltdown. Bill Kalina photo

Molloy also said there were a lot of positives that came out of the TMI accident, such as the advent of modern emergency planning and monitors in school districts that help with information sharing.

“This was, if you will, probably the first major disaster at the time that required emergency planning and got the publicity that it did,” he said.

Evolving views: Previous generations protested nuclear plants, but Fein said he's seeing a lot of young people now that support nuclear power because of its environmental benefits.

There are a number of Facebook groups in support of nuclear, including Mothers for Nuclear, Time to Go Nuclear and Generation Atomic. 

In Middletown, which is about 3 miles from the plant, residents have mixed opinions. 

"People are really uneducated in terms of nuclear power," said Brian Lewis, who runs the Nuclear Bean coffee shop. He's confident in the safety of the plant.

Bob Shoenfelt, 40, says he's sure there will be things people find out about the plant years from now.

"I don't see any three-headed fish," he said, but he added that it's scary to live so close. "It's like having the White House in your backyard."