Special Report

Living With Three Mile Island

Everyday life with an infamous symbol, as Obama sends nuclear carrier Reagan to Japan.

By 3.22.11

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Three Mile Island and the USS Ronald Reagan.

Both in the news because of Japan. What is not in the news is that President Obama has sent a floating nuclear power plant into an abundantly active earthquake/tsunami zone of the Pacific to aid victims in an area where a nuclear power plant had a tsunami-induced explosion. And no one -- no one -- has so much as murmured at the irony. Much less demanded the Reagan be withdrawn -- or scrapped.

But first -- let's get close to home. As a matter of fact, let's get literally home to my own home. And to the then-Governor of Pennsylvania whose wisdom and common sense helped Central Pennsylvanians get through the world's first quite dramatic nuclear power plant crisis.

You can see it, of course. Right today.

Cross the bridge… .there it is downriver a handful of miles. Ten maybe, if that.

Go to the drug store? See the tell-tale cooling tower plumes out there from the top of the hill. Go to the grocery store? Ditto. Go pay the heat bill? Ditto. Go to this or that local destination for task A, B, or C and ditto, ditto and ditto again. Any view south down the river and its impossible to miss.

Flying in or out of town? The Harrisburg International Airport is adjacent to the Susquehanna River. Alongside the runways, just out several hundred feet from shore, sits the island "three miles" from nearby Middletown. From above as one arrives or departs it's like looking at a collection of very big vertical cannons. Close up.

"It" of course is what was, until the last couple of weeks, the most infamous -- and still very much working -- nuclear power plant in the world.

Three Mile Island. The nuclear power plant that scared the world to death. The concrete embodiment of what drives every environmentalist absolutely stir crazy. The incident that helped propel the movie The China Syndrome -- playing in Harrisburg area theaters that very week in March of 1979 -- to a smashing box office success for stars Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon.

Yet international symbol that it may be, if you live here -- as I do -- it's nothing more sinister today than a part of the region's architectural furniture. More famous than the Irish green state capitol dome, perhaps, but decidedly more benign in terms of everyday life. Considering the frequent antics that have taken place under the green dome by this or that state legislator or the legislature as a whole over the decades since that March of 1979 and there are moments when Three Mile Island seems downright cuddly. After all, other than that one…ahhhh…hiccup that got some attention…OK…lots and lots of attention….this quite visible, still-operating nuclear power plant has never been indicted, raised its own pay in the middle of the night or used state funds to pay for political campaigns.

One jests, but of course, there's nothing funny about what's happening in Japan with the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Radiation has escaped, and the danger of a meltdown is bannered with every news bulletin.

But the mere fact that life goes on in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and environs 32 years later -- no one has died from TMI, babies have been born and grown up and had their own healthy babies, the region has grown and prospered -- is something to reflect on amid all the panic over Japan both in Japan and elsewhere around the globe.

And some of this reaction inside and outside Japan is panic, too. Understandable yet… extremely unnecessary. No less than the estimable Charles Krauthammer has proclaimed "nuclear energy is dead. " Krauthammer is a considerably thoughtful man, but his response here shows a startling lack of imagination in the future of nuclear technology (see this piece yesterday by William Tucker right here at The American Spectator; also, check out Bill's appearance on Charlie Rose last week, on the subject of nuclear safety). As someone who lives every moment of the day with Three Mile Island as a responsible and good neighbor, one hopes Krauthammer is wrong. The idea of the "death" of nuclear power is utterly foolish, presuming nuclear technology never changes, never moves forward -- and ignoring a hard fact of the current crisis.

Not to put too fine a point on this, but what has President Obama done to assist the Japanese in their hour of peril? Why, he sent an aircraft carrier -- the USS Ronald Reagan -- to lend a hand. That would be the nuclear-powered aircraft carrier Reagan. So in other words, racing to the aid of a country stricken by an earthquake-generated tsunami that has literally roiled the Pacific Ocean and upended all manner of sturdy ships -- we have fearlessly sent into this seagoing turmoil a floating nuclear power plant. And nobody -- nobody -- has blinked.

AS WELL THEY SHOULDN'T. The Reagan and its nuclear sister ships are common and eminently safe. There is actually someone who has a considerable bit of wisdom on the subject of handling a problem like that of Fukushima Daiichi, and he should be swamped with media requests right about now.

That person would be former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh. The man who had begun his first term as governor a mere 72 days before he received an early morning phone call that March morning in 1979, a phone call that doubtless will go down in history as one of the more startling.

A Republican former U.S. Attorney, who would later serve as Attorney General of the United States for both Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, Thornburgh was, in 1979, just another of America's fifty state governors and a rookie at that, having won a tough 1978 race that surprisingly ended eight years of Democratic rule. The phone call that would make history came in at 7:50 a.m. as he was in the midst of a breakfast with state legislative leaders discussing a regular feature of a governor's life, the state budget.

"There had been an accident," Thornburgh would later recall being told by the state director of emergency management. An accident "at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant, located about ten miles downstream from us, in the middle of the Susquehanna River." As he recounted years later in his autobiography, Where the Evidence Leads, during what Thornburgh called his "breaking-in" period as a new governor he had "visited the offices of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA)." Pennsylvania had had its share of plain-old fashioned emergencies in the relatively recent past, most notably Hurricane Agnes seven years earlier in June of 1972. The Susquehanna River had flooded extensively, wreaking havoc along its north-south course through the state. A course, by the way, that included Three Mile Island, the small island in the middle of the Susquehanna where the namesake nuclear power plant was already well under construction as flood waters raged. Thornburgh's predecessor had even been forced to flee the governor's mansion, set back from the river's eastern banks, as the waters surged onto the streets of Harrisburg, over the governor's lawn and on into the mansion itself, leaving a bathtub-like ring around a good bit of Pennsylvania state history not to mention the town itself. But the idea of some sort of massive "event" at TMI was so little thought of that as Thornburgh made his PEMA tour the director had made only a "passing reference to TMI" -- and that in the course of his briefing about the then mundane fact of the existence of various nuclear power facilities within Pennsylvania's borders.

That was it. 

Now, out of the blue, Dick Thornburgh -- lawyer, prosecutor, successful candidate for governor but not a nuclear scientist -- was on his way to being thrust into the very center of an international nuclear crisis no American chief executive at any level had ever dealt with before. A crisis that would test everything from his ability to manage to grasping the chewy details of nuclear power to dealing with an onslaught of media attention no predecessor anywhere had ever faced.

The accident, he learned, had taken place at thirty-six seconds after four that morning of the 28th. Cooling water had started to escape through an open valve. For over the next two hours, he says, "plant operators failed to close that valve and mistakenly shut off an emergency cooling system that otherwise would have operated automatically. The reactor core overheated, and the worst accident in the history of commercial nuclear power was well underway by sunup."

"Nuclear jargon was a foreign language to me," he recalls. And he needed to get fluent -- pronto.

The problems -- incredible, confusing, infuriating, -- piled on relentlessly as Thornburgh suddenly found his attention re-directed from what increasingly seemed like the gubernatorial minutia of budgeting. Lieutenant Governor William Scranton had been delegated responsibility for PEMA as Thornburgh sorted out administrative responsibilities between his November election and January inaugural. The state version of precisely the back burner responsibilities presidents delegate to their vice presidents, suddenly Scranton too was now thrust front and center. And neither man was having a good day.

In a preview of coming attractions that should be making Japanese leaders pay close attention, as the clock ticked both the governor and his second-in-command were now being swamped with conflicting information from the utility running TMI (Metropolitan Edison) and its parent company, General Public Utilities. The urgent phone calls piled up from state regulators and then federal regulators. Thornburgh is a man with a wonderfully friendly personality, but years later the anger is detectable in his words as he writes of "other groups and institutions" who "issued increasingly contradictory assessments, telling the public either more or less than they knew of the accident and its consequences. Self-appointed experts exaggerated either the danger or the safety of the situation. The credibility of the utility, in particular, did not fare well. On that first day it sought to minimize the accident, assuring us, inaccurately, that 'everything is under control' and that 'all safety equipment functioned properly.'"

Then, as if the situation weren't bad enough, "when company technicians found that radiation levels in the surrounding area had climbed above normal, the company neglected to release that information to the public. It also vented some radioactive steam into the air for two and one-half hours…without informing us [Thornburgh and Scranton] or the public."

By 4:30 pm of Day One, a teeth-grinding Scranton had to step before the cameras to make a statement that caused Central Pennsylvania residents to sit up in shocked alarm. Said the new Lieutenant Governor: 

 "…this situation is more complex than the company first led us to believe."

By nightfall the new Governor and Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania were up to their necks in experts, almost unintelligible jargon ("6,000 roentgens" ) that neither spoke much less understood, on top of which outside their doors was a demanding press corps that was expanding almost hourly from a few dozen to hundreds from around the nation and the globe. No less than the man considered to be the Oracle of Journalism in America -- CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite -- led his evening broadcast (before the advent of cable news) with the dramatic tale of a rapidly failing nuclear power plant that had been all but anonymous less than 24 hours earlier.

And so it went. Ten days later, after thousands had fled (my own parents included), after a visit from President Jimmy Carter (who did have a Navy background in nuclear science), after breathtaking days of televised suspense -- Governor Thornburgh went on statewide television. Central Pennsylvanians, he announced, "can come home again."

They did.

SO WHAT DID DICK THORNBURGH LEARN? And, as one person who came home much later, why don't I have three heads? Why did Dad, who lived out his life here, pass away from natural causes at almost 90 -- instead of from radiation poisoning at 62?

Here's what might be called The Thornburgh Lessons for elected officials -- and other decision makers -- written by him and shortened by my hand only.

1. Expect the unexpected, be prepared to adjust accordingly.

2. When emergencies strike, have a trusted "ad-hocracy" available to advise. Which is to say, there are lots of wonderful titles in government, but they often enough don't match up with the common sense and good judgment of those not holding official rank or who are outside the perceived official circle. Get a good circle of advisors -- and listen.

3. Be ready to restrain those who think solely of "doing something" -- heedless of safety, wisdom or necessity. The impulse for action on the part of anybody must be firmly restrained.

4. No "emergency macho." The temptation, as Thornburgh terms it, to "stay up all night and brag about it." Of maximum use is a clear mind and a rested body.

5. Don't manage an emergency away from the site. Someone trusted must be in charge on the physical location, in this case TMI itself. Thornburgh had such a person -- understanding that even the ten mile distance of the state capitol or governor and lieutenant governor's mansion was a potential eternity away.

6. Search for the facts, evaluate them, evaluate their sources -- "over and over again." Above all, communicate them truthfully to the public and the media. Credibility is fragile -- and crucial.

7. Respect the media and its role -- but don't rely on it. In other words, in today's cable world of 24/7 media, don't rely on television when you should have your own direct access to the facts. There were, of a sudden, the above mentioned 400 reporters descending and demanding and reporting in the sleepy state capitol. Simple errors can have a big impact. Thornburgh notes one British outlet breathlessly reported that the governor's pregnant wife had left the area. In fact, Thornburgh and wife Ginny had four children, she wasn't pregnant and she had gone nowhere. Lieutenant Governor Scranton's wife was pregnant -- and stayed with her husband in Harrisburg throughout. But the panicky suggestion that the top state official was secretly sending his pregnant wife fleeing made an impact until the truth was surfaced.

8. Forget partisanship. This is a very big, potentially life or death, deal. There are no Republicans or Democrats. They have political parties in Japan too -- ignore the partisanship.

9. Learn from history. Easier now in Japan than in Harrisburg in 1979. Thornburgh dug out an unread book on a problem at a Detroit-area nuclear plant and devoured it. It was all the history he had.

10. Appreciate Yogi Berra's dictum that "it ain't over till it's over." The aftermath of TMI stretched out well-beyond the incident itself. Venting problems, public hearing problems. Were people going to get sick or die if they stayed in the area? Etc., etc., etc.

All told, an impressive list of lessons learned the hard way by a man who anticipated many challenges if elected governor of his state -- but not a partial meltdown at a nuclear reactor just down river in his own backyard.

And for those who live here in the Harrisburg area now?

In my case, I had moved to Washington to work -- a year before TMI. Harrisburg, suburban Harrisburg actually, is my adopted home town. As it happened, in my role as a deeply junior congressional aide two days after that fateful Wednesday I was alone in my congressional boss's Capitol Hill office -- the staff and boss having departed for an early long weekend. The phone rang. To my astonishment it was the congressional liaison staff for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. As if that weren't startling enough, the message was electrifying. The NRC had concluded that the Three Mile Island nuclear plant was now -- after 48 plus hours of riveting TV drama -- on the verge of a full and complete meltdown. My boss -- Congressman Bud Shuster from Pennsylvania -- and all other members of the Pennsylvania delegation were being officially, formally notified. I hung up the phone. Stunned. Dutifully, I followed the Congressman's office chain of command and called his chief of staff, who in turn relayed the message. Next? Next? What do you think? Young, inexperienced, scared out of my wits -- I called my parents in suburban Harrisburg. They left that day -- putting a quickly grabbed assortment of valued family possessions and clothes in their car and rapidly heading north to my mother's sister's home in New York State. They didn't return until Dick Thornburgh gave the word. And as it turned out, TMI did not have a complete meltdown. The information the NRC was formally providing to Pennsylvania members of the U.S. Congress -- was wrong.

But here, as the late Paul Harvey might say, is the rest of the story. When Governor Thornburgh gave the word -- Mom and Dad and thousands of others came home. They trusted him. Most importantly -- they stayed. Being scared out of the place they chose to live and retire because of TMI was never on their agenda -- or the agenda of other area residents either. And after some adventures in the Big Wide World -- I came home too.

No third or even second heads grew. No one around here glows in the dark. The biggest energy problem in this household since 1979? Not a partial core meltdown of a nuclear reactor 32 years ago. No, that honor at this house goes to the squirrel who chewed through a Pennsylvania Power and Light grounding line that knocked off our Internet, phone and television service. According to the Comcast and PP&L repairmen, the consequent partial -- and literal -- meltdown of the cable bringing us the History Channel, Fox News, ESPN and even MSNBC could have burned down our house. When did this happen? Last week. The point? The most danger this home and its inhabitants have ever been in has come from -- a squirrel. Oh…that and the backsurge of electricity that knocked out power after one of those very matter-of-fact ice storms that hit the area a few winters back in the middle of … hmmm… global warming.

In other words? Ice and a squirrel.

That's it. That's all, folks.

DOES THIS MEAN the Japanese shouldn't be concerned? Worried? No, of course not. They are in trouble, they are having a serious problem, and any sane person wishes them well. America is on the scene to help, with, as it happens, a deeply uncontroversial nuclear powered aircraft carrier named after Dick Thornburgh's former boss Ronald Reagan, a notably calm and careful man himself in a crisis. If one believes the average Japanese is as filled with common sense as the average Central Pennsylvanian, they will assess their situation, learn from it, and keep going. And the floating nuclear power plant that is the Ronald Reagan will keep on sailing.

But watching events unfold in Japan 32 years after Three Mile Island, one needs to apply Thornburgh Lesson # 6: Search for the facts. Thousands have died in Japan -- from, as far as we now know, an earthquake and a tsunami. No one -- no one -- in all of Japan is yet listed as having died from radiation poisoning that resulted when said earthquake and tsunami damaged the plant.

Applying the same Thornburgh Lesson here in everyday life as one takes in the sight of TMI while on the way to the grocery store? No one here is drinking radioactive milk from the descendants of radioactive cows. No one, in fact, has died as near as can be understood, from drinking or eating anything raised in this area or thereabouts during or long after TMI. And this being rural Central Pennsylvania, "thereabouts" included then and now lots and lots of farms raising lots and lots of dairy cows and farm fresh vegetables. Babies have been born, and lots of very old people have died long after they never left the area at all in March of 1979. Fact: no one died at TMI.

When you strip all the personalities and nuclear power jargon out of this TMI story, what you have is a story of average Americans who, confronted with a terrifying tale that could directly affect both their lives and those of their families and descendants -- collected their wits, zeroed in Thornburgh-style on just the facts, and went on with their lives. They stayed right where they were in Central Pennsylvania -- and over the years thousands more have joined them. Post-TMI the area has boomed.

They well understood the concept of risk -- and chance. They understood then -- and now -- that simply getting out of bed in the morning entails risk. Forward motion, life -- whether inventing or using electricity or nuclear power or any other concept of any kind formed in the mind of man (or even not -- earthquakes and tsunamis!) -- can have dire, if not fatal, consequences. And yes, sometimes drastically so. As those few who survived the sinking of the Titanic, the dropping of a nuclear bomb on Hiroshima or the collapsing of a World Trade Center Tower in New York can attest. As those astronauts who have followed in the wake of the Challenger -- or the Chernobyl -- explosion can certify.

And speaking of the Titanic, the famous ship thought to be "unsinkable" -- the nuclear-powered Reagan isn't unsinkable either. But no one is insisting it stop sailing.

Yes… sure. What if something had gone wrong beyond what did go wrong at TMI? What if Dick Thornburgh guessed wrong with the sometimes -- frequent? -- hysterical, bad, or just plain dumb incoming information that flooded his desk? What if the President of the United States at the time -- had gotten it crazy? What if -- as seemed for a few moments in time -- Mom and Dad could never have come back to our home? Leaving everything beyond what was hastily gathered for a quick getaway? Everything from their clothes to their furniture to family keepsakes -- all left alone in a house that would stand forever in some sort of nuclear infected twilight zone? Untouched. Frozen in time in a museum of horrors never to be opened?

What if Harrisburg had become Chernobyl? What if the Reagan had arrived off the coast of Japan only to be wiped out and sunk by another tsunami, spewing nuclear fuel into the Pacific?

You know what?

The world would have gone on. Pennsylvania went on after TMI. In fact, we go on here every single day, well in sight of TMI. Let it be noted that after Chernobyl -- Russia went on. Had the Reagan sunk -- the Pacific Ocean would have gone on.

So too will Japan go on.

Not to mention the rest of us.

Including that damnable squirrel.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.