Saturday, March 28, 2009

30 Years Ago Today - Panic at Three Mile Island

On March 28, 1979, America's worst commercial nuclear accident occurred inside the Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island plant near Middletown, Pennsylvannia. I was a junior in high school and about a week before, I had saw the movie "The China Syndrome," which starred Jane Fonda as a TV anchor reporting on a catastrophic nuclear plant failure. Talk about bad timing! This news really peaked my interest.

It was then that Americans realized first hand the potential dangers of nuclear energy. The accident stopped the U.S. nuclear power industry dead in its tracks. No more nuclear plants were ordered in the United States following the accident and none started after 1974 were completed.

I remembered being glued to the news and seeing frantic locals being interviewed. People were fleeing the area like crazy. Roads were jammed. It seemed very chaotic and nobody seemed to know what to do, where to go, or what to expect. My curiosity must have came about after seeing "The China Syndrome." I had never seen anything like it, and those towers looked so futuristic back then. I wanted to see if for myself someday. I never imagined that I would get that opportunity. Then Chernobyl happened in 1986, and it was almost like a dare to see Three Mile Island. Well, curiosity finally got the best of me.

So during our east coast vacation in 1988, Ron and I routed our trip to make a brief stop there while passing through on our way to several eastern cities. That's me (don't laugh at my hair, remember it was in the 80's!), back in the day checking out the observatory deck at the visitors center. It offered a panoramic view of the plant from across the highway and Susquehanna River. That is from where I took the following photos.

Supposedly, it was safe to be there. After all, they had made a tourist attraction out of it by then! Besides the many exhibits in the visitors center, they offered two types of tours--drive around tours and in plant tours. We said no thanks to those tours and felt a little nervous that we were even as close as we were to the plant. I really just thought we would drive near the plant and see it from a distance. I was surprised to get so close.

It was a beautiful sight in a weird sort of way, definitely not a place you would visit again. The narrow river and lush greenery still didn't make it blend in. It seemed very out of place, so close to residential areas.

The visitors center had a lot of educational displays and was staffed by the Communications Division of the GPU Nuclear Corporation, the operator of Three Mile Island Units 1 and 2. Trained professionals in their field and staff members welcomed an opportunity to discuss questions (and there were many) about nuclear power, safety and Three Mile Island. In addition to several video presentations, there were actual equipment from the plant. What I remember the most was the Geiger counters and how they still click click clicked at just about everything they were aimed at. That in itself was a little eerie (but they claimed everything was perfectly safe) and needless to say, we did not stay and visit for very long.

I wonder if these staff people are still alive. And if they aren't alive, I wonder what they died from. I could not confirm, but from what I gather, the visitors center closed after 9/11 or before. Although it pales in comparison to the Chernobyl accident in 1986, the credibility of the nuclear power industry in the United States was lost. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is now reviewing industry proposals to build a new generation of reactors.

Click the title link for the interesting NY Times "Three Mile Island Still Haunts U.S. Nuclear Industry."

Here's the cover of the tri-fold pamphlet about the visitors center and the tours, location, hours, etc. It really does look like it was made in the 60's! This was definitely one of the most bizarre tourist attractions I have ever seen.

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themom said...

My husband worked at TMI for awhile, leaving about 4 months before the "accident." He continued working at nuclear power houses - and I have to wonder if all the "zoomies" he contracted, contributed to his cancers.

John said...

@themom, sorry to hear your husband got cancer. I think there's a definite connection with working at TMI.

I noticed after I posted those pics at TMI that the sky is yellow. I've never seen anything like that. The pictures were old, but the other colors, especially greens and my orange & white shirt, the colors look normal.

Very strange that sky!

Maria said...

My husband and I often disagree on politics (He is very conservative) and on envirionmental issues. He is a great believer in nuclear power and would love to see safer nuclear power houses in our future. He helped design and build the first nuclear submarines while a Navy officer.

I personally would rather see us harnass the sun's energy than go nuclear.

Is that smog that yellows the sky? It is eerie. However, your long hair just makes me miss my sons who all had long hair in the 80's. Sigh, now they are middle-aged and successful. I do miss those more adventurous years.

John said...

@Maria, I'm with you and think solar power is a great idea. I'm sure if I had Bob's experience with nuclear submarines I would push for more nuclear energy.

I'm really not sure why the sky appears yellow in the photos. It may be possible that whatever color the sky was has faded into this yellowish tint over time. I don't remember the sky being that color, when I was there.

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