40 years ago, Three Mile Island had the nation on edge
Bob Hauser still remembers the metallic taste he got in his mouth while playing in the backyard with his two sons the afternoon of March 28, 1979.
“Tony (Hauser’s then-8-year-old son) was climbing a tree and he said, ‘My mouth tastes funny.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, what is that?’” said Hauser, now 69. “Take a 9-volt battery and stick it to your tongue. That’s the taste I had in my mouth.”
Unbeknown to Hauser at the time, a nuclear crisis was unfolding about three miles away from his Middletown, Dauphin County, home.
Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor had partially melted down that morning, releasing dangerous radioactive gases into the atmosphere and triggering a panic that would grip the nation for days, prompt many Dauphin County residents to evacuate and change the nuclear power industry.
Hauser, who is convinced the metallic taste was related to what remains the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history now 40 years later, stayed put.
“I worked paycheck to paycheck and couldn’t afford to take time off from work,” Hauser said. “We kept the kids in the house and shut the windows.”
Bracing for the worst
Former Gov. Dick Thornburgh, a Pittsburgh native, found himself at the center of the crisis just more than two months into his first term in office.
“The only one in a position to know what was happening were those working for the utility (Metropolitan Edison) and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and from the outset they were either not sharing it or sharing it inaccurately,” Thornburgh said in an email to the Tribune-Review.
“In fact, it became apparent to us early on that managers and executives at the plant did not fully understand what was happening inside,” Thornburgh said.
Shortly after 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, a mechanical or electrical failure prevented a pump from sending cooling water to steam generators that remove heat from the nuclear reactor core. Instead, water escaped through an open valve. Human error compounded the problem, with operators mistakenly shutting off an emergency cooling system.
The core overheated, and a few hours later, a general emergency was declared with the potential for “serious radiological consequences” to the general public.
In his 2003 book, “Where the Evidence Leads,” Thornburgh wrote that when Metropolitan Edison technicians discovered radiation levels in the surrounding area had climbed above normal, the company failed to go public with the information. He said the company also failed to publicly disclose that it had vented radioactive steam into the air for two and a half hours on the day of the accident.
As word got out about the accident and rumors spread, Pennsylvania and the nation held its breath, hoped for the best and braced for the worst. Some people panicked.
By March 30, 1979, a day that would become known as “Black Friday,” Thornburgh recommended that pregnant women and preschool children within five miles of the plant should evacuate and all schools within that zone be closed.
He had considered giving a general evacuation order but decided against it, partly because of the panic he believed might ensue.
“We were very careful to assess the pros and cons of ordering a general evacuation. We knew that even a planned evacuation can cause panic, injury and loss of lives,” Thornburgh said.
Some panicked anyway.
That night, Walter Cronkite led the CBS Evening News by saying, “We are faced with the remote, but very real, possibility of a nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island atomic power plant.”
It probably didn’t help that the movie “The China Syndrome,” about a fictional accident at a California nuclear power plant, debuted in the Harrisburg area that week. The movie contained a line about a meltdown potentially contaminating an area “the size of Pennsylvania.”
Many people in Middletown left immediately.
“Some people were so panicky that they walked out of their house, got in their car and drove off, never even closed their front door and just left everything, fully expecting never to come back,” Hauser said.
Robert Reid, the borough’s mayor at the time, added, “I recall standing on the street corner and people were zooming up the street, hollering at me, ‘Take care of the town,’ and ‘Watch my house.’ ”
Reid, now 86, famously gave an order to police to shoot any looters.
“Boy did I ever catch hell about that,” Reid said.
Reid sent his wife and children out of town during the crisis, but was determined to stay and watch over Middletown. Still, he admits to being frightened but says he couldn’t show it.
“What would it have been like if I had been running up and down the street showing signs of panic? How would this affect the people? What I had as far as fear, I held within myself and I never showed it on my face,” Reid said.
On April 1, 1979, after the Nuclear Regulatory Commission had confirmed there was no further danger of a deadly explosion or meltdown, Thornburgh accompanied President Carter on a tour of the power plant.
“President Carter helped in several very important ways. I think his presence reassured everyone that the worst was over,” Thornburgh told the Tribune-Review, noting his involvement not only calmed fears but also ensured the support and cooperation of several federal agencies.
Reid added: “And he brought (first lady Rosalynn Carter) with him. The townspeople said, ‘Look, if the president’s coming and bringing his wife, then everything must be OK.’ ”
On April 6, 1979, Thornburgh declared the crisis over in a statewide television address and said it was safe for those who had left the area to return.
“The fact that the Three Mile Island accident is the most talked about accident in the history of the U.S. nuclear power industry, even though no one got hurt and no one died, tells you something about how safe the industry is,” said Jon Johnson, who had been an inspector with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission for five months when the accident happened and was dispatched to the site from the agency’s Philadelphia office.
‘We survived TMI’
Still, for 30 years after Three Mile Island, no new nuclear plants were approved in the United States. A few have moved forward in more recent years, including two under construction in Georgia.
Today, the Three Mile Island-2 reactor is permanently shut down and 99 percent of its fuel has been removed. Exelon Corp., which owns and operates Three Mile Island, said it plans to close the plant’s other reactor this fall, at least in part because of stiff competition from natural gas.
Legislation being considered in Harrisburg to funnel millions of taxpayer dollars into Three Mile Island and Pennsylvania’s other nuclear plants could prevent the closure. Pennsylvania is the nation’s No. 2 nuclear power state.
For 38 years, no direct connection linking cancer to the accident was ever firmly established. But in 2017, a Penn State Medical Center study found a link between the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and thyroid cancer using molecular research created after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Hauser said his family experienced no long-term adverse health effects. Today, his sons are grown with kids of their own. He has seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Days after the Three Mile Island accident, Hauser’s family hung a bed sheet spray-painted with the message, “We Survived TMI” from the front porch of their Middletown apartment building. A photo of the sheet appeared in Time magazine and newspapers across the country.
“We were like, ‘OK, we survived it. Let’s move on with our lives,’ ” he said.
Paul Guggenheimer is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-226-7706 or [email protected].