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core memories

WRITTEN BY Maria V. Snyder

Three Mile Island. TMI. THE NAME EVOKES AN AUTOMATIC association with the most serious nuclear power plant accident in the United States. Even 30 years later, memories of those living in Central Pennsylvania during the accident are still vivid.

The accident began in TMI-2’s plant on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, at about 4 a.m. The main feedwater pumps stopped running and prevented the steam generators from cooling down. Both the reactor and steam turbines automatically shut off, which increased the pressure in the system. In order to fix the problem, a relief valve opened to decrease the water pressure, but once the pressure decreased, the valve failed to close. Cooling water therefore poured from the open valve instead of going into the reactor core.







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Although alarms rang and warning lights flashed, the




) ) ) core memories



Left: Protesters, shown in March 1985, stating their opposition to the restarting of TMI-1 reactor, which was to take place in October 1985.

Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA


Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA

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Right: TMI personnel cleaning up the contaminated auxiliary building.




information was one of the worse aspects


of the accident. Information that was

egg farm in

relayed via radio and the three broadcast



was “business as usual.








it leave


diagnosed the problem and

“It was a scary time,” remembers Dick

made it worse by reducing the

Morgan. He was working in Elizabethtown

flow of water to the core. This


when the news reached him. “It was total

caused the nuclear fuel to overheat

remembers, “The school was empty.

panic … the rumor mill started rapidly.”

It was really weird.”

to a point where the fuel pellets began to melt. It was discovered later that

Workers wanted to leave.

TMI-2 suffered a severe core meltdown

scenario where melting nuclear fuel would breach the walls of the building and release major amounts of radiation to the Luckily, experts later determined only a negligible amount of radiation had





atmosphere. The accident caused





approximately 140,000 people volOver the course of the next two days, reports from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission varied. At one point, an NRC spokesman reassured the public that “the danger was over,” even though they had




untarily evacuated the area.

It was a scary time ... the rumor mill started rapidly.

could have resulted in the worst-case

When to


Becky Greenly can remember being in

that melted 52 percent of the core. This


failed to stabilize the plant. On Friday, March 30, NRC went from underestimating the damage to

social studies class when a person entered

overestimating the danger. The


growing uncertainty about the




no deaths or injuries to plant

whispered to her teacher. No one said

workers or local residents. But

condition of the plant prompted

anything to the students, but they closed

to those who lived in the


the vents and windows of the building.

area, the incident was

advise pregnant women

“Kids were being picked up by their

and pre-school aged

parents,” Greenly said. “It was chaos for a


while. They kept calling names over the


an unnerving and terrifying



living a

loudspeakers.” When she arrived home on her

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Courtesy of Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA

) ) ) core memories

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President Jimmy Carter touring the TMI-2 control room with (left to right) Harold Denton, Governor Thornburgh, and James Floyd, supervisor of TMI-2 operations, on April 1, 1979.

5-mile radius to leave the area. Later on

“could render an area the size of the state

home all the important stuff—pictures,

the 30th, the discovery of a large hydrogen

of Pennsylvania permanently

clothes, and plants. No books!”

bubble triggered more panic.


Barb Read was attending Millersville

Throughout the day on Saturday,

remembers being concerned but not afraid

University during that time. She lived on

March 31, the authorities and experts

about the accident. “Not until we went to

campus and had, at first, brushed off the

studied the hydrogen bubble. If the bubble

church,” he says. “There was a buzz in

news. “We went out to dinner Friday

burned or exploded, it could have caused

the church. The rumors were wild;

night and came back to mass hysteria,”

a breach of containment and released

everything was being blamed on TMI.

Read remembers. “Girls were screaming

massive amounts of radiation to the

Someone said all the flies had died within

and crying, ‘It’s gonna blow!’ The line for


a 5-mile radius.”

the phones went down the stairs, across

Unaware of the possible danger, Barb

The lack of trust in the media and

the lobby, and out the front door. By

Read and her roommate, Sue Ellerbrake,

rumors of a cover-up all added to the

Friday night, the campus was dead

stayed at school. Ellerbrake went on a

confusion. Even sensible Dr. Fetter sent


date Saturday night and Read worked on

his wife and three daughters to

a paper, listening to the radio. “The news

Shafferstown to stay with relatives. “I

“We are faced with the remote but very

reported the bubble was growing, and I

stayed. I didn’t want my house looted.”

real possibility of a nuclear meltdown at

started to get concerned.”

That night, Walter Cronkite reported,

Three Mile Island atomic power plant.” The coincidental release of the movie







Dr. Werner Fetter of Elizabethtown

When Millersville issued a mandatory

On Sunday, the experts determined the hydrogen bubble would not burn due to

campus-wide evacuation on Sunday,

lack of oxygen. Panic finally eased after

The China Syndrome, 12 days before the

April 1, Read panicked. “We called our

two major events: President Jimmy Carter

accident, also helped fuel residents’ fear.

parents. The rumors speculated the area

and Governor Thornburgh toured the

In the movie, an energy official informs

could be radioactive for 500 years!” Read

plant, and Harold Denton, the director of

Jane Fonda’s character that an explosion

now laughs at the memory. “We took

reactor regulation for the NRC, had

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cover ) ) ) core memories

Three Mile Island today, with reactor TMI-1 restarted in 1985 and still running on the left, and TMI-2, the location of the meltdown of 1979, currently in long-term monitored storage. arrived to coordinate the efforts to control

Links for more information:

the plant and coordinated communications

• (NCR: fact

with the public. “He [Denton] was the kind of person we needed,” Dr. Fetter says. “They put him in

sheet on the Three Mile Island accident) • (Smithsonian: National Museum of American History – Three Mile Island: The Inside Story)

charge, and he was calm and didn’t flowercoat anything.” The accident had caught everyone offguard. Since then, the NRC and other government organizations have made major changes to policy and procedures. Yet public fear and distrust remain, and the incident has halted and slowed nuclear plant construction throughout the United States, thereby “killing the nuclear industry for 30 years,” Andrew Kadak, MIT professor of nuclear engineering, said. Only 35 new commercial reactors have been put online since 1979. Cleanup of TMI-2 lasted 12 years and cost $973 million. Currently, the reactor is in long-term monitored storage. TMI-1 reactor was restarted in October 1985, and has a license to operate until 2014. In January 2008, a license renewal application, which would allow TMI-1 to operate until 2034, was submitted to the NRC. Memories of fear and panic will remain with those who lived through those five days in 1979. Everyone would likely agree with Dick Morgan, who says, “It’s an experience I don’t want to go through again.” ) ) )

Years of service – generations of support. A tradition of community support continues as Neill Funeral Home and Rolling Green Cemetery serve the families of Central Pennsylvania. With honor. With respect. And with dignity. We are pleased to offer care through the unique benefits that are available as a Dignity Memorial® provider: • National Transferability • 24-Hour Compassion Helpline® • Bereavement Travel Program • 100% Service Guarantee • Away From Home Protection • Child/Grandchild Protection* To learn more, call or visit

Neill Funeral Home Stephen Wilsbach, Supervisor 3501 Derry Street • Harrisburg, PA 17111 (717) 564-2633 Kevin Shillabeer, Supervisor 3401 Market St. • Camp Hill, PA 17011 (717) 737-8726

Rolling Green Cemetery 1811 Carlisle Road Camp Hill, PA 17011 (717) 761-4055

Not available in Maryland.

spring 2009|






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Core Memories _ TMI  

THE NAME EVOKES AN AUTOMATIC association with the most serious nuclear power plant accident in the United States. Even 30 years later, memor...

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