The looming towers of Three Mile Island (TMI) grew in size as I drove from Conshohocken to Harrisburg, PA, some 90 miles away. It was on this very day, March 29, 31 years ago, that America experienced fear and a second-guessing of its decision to build nuclear reactors so close to populated areas.
I entered the grounds as one of only six reporters to tell the world what it was like inside a facility that had just weathered a partial melt-down, far worse than what had been described in the movie with Jane Fonda and a young Michael Douglass, the “China Syndrome.” The movie’s title came from scientists’ theories that such a melt down of a nuclear core could burn all the way to China from a place like . . . would you believe the movie, filmed before the accident, actually referred to the state of “Pennsylvania.” What a coincidence. Or was it synchronicity?
President Jimmy Carter had “toured” the plant a few days earlier. Himself an engineer, he wanted to insure to Americans that there was no fear of the plant. It helped. So did the cool-headedness of then Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh, who later served as US Attorney General.
I compared Three-Mile Island to the plant being built in Limerick, PA, some 25 miles outside of Philadelphia. Nothing I wrote as a “pool reporter” is memorable today. I described routine activities like employees working at the job site, a man’s ability to forge on despite accidents, and the cleanliness of the facility — except for some graffiti that our Pulitzer-prize winning photographer captured for the story.
But, it had very little criticism and probably got very little exposure in a period when “bad news” travelled a helluva lot faster than the good stuff.
Today, TMI is just a “blimp” in America’s history. But anyone who lived close to it back then, can tell you of the evacuation of nearby towns and the record volume of telephone calls made to Pennsylvania from loved ones out-of-state. If someone even remotely connected to the area told you they weren’t scared, don’t believe them. We all were. Some won’t admit it.
One thing about my TMI story stood out, however. It was actually a follow-up I wrote weeks later. I got a letter from Metropolitan Edison Co. (Met Ed), the operators of the power plant. (They went out of business or merged into some other utility conglomerate, I believe. Used to have “Snoopy” of the now defunct “Peanuts” cartoon strip as its advertising mascot. Have no idea what Charles M. Schulz, the artist of Peanuts, ever thought of his creation and its commercial use after March 28, 1979.)
Each reporter was given a plastic pin that we carried on our chests. It was to measure any exposure to radiation. At the end of the day, you turned in the pin and weeks later you got notification from the company.
Got no radiation exposure, according to the letter from MetEd. Kept that letter and actually framed it. You see, the company that was trying to show the world that there would never be any other mistakes in managing the use of nuclear energy had proven to me how fallible they truly were.
They made a mistake with my zip code. Got it completely wrong. Did not even come close and actually printed out a code for someplace out west, I seem to recall. Human error? Or machine? Did it really matter back then?
How about today?