WEDNESDAY, MARCH 28–
Across the passing flow of the Susquehannah River, Mrs. Holly Carnish, who with her husband and dog had resided in the shadow of the containment domes for as long as the structures had been there, awoke at 3:53 in the morning to a sound so intense that she described it as ‘louder than a big jet landing on top of you.’ She heard the venting of steam that marked the beginning of what the Metropolitan Edison Corporation–and its predecessor, General Public Utilities and still further corporate caretakers–has been wont to call the ‘incident.’
In the standard view, so far as most official records indicate,a supply pump for the steam generator failed inexplicably. A cooling water pump that interlocked with this first pump also quit. Sensors therefore automatically rejected incoming steam, and a giant 1,000 pound-per-square-inch jet of hyper-heate water vented through a relief valve as a result. Perversely, or through human error, this valve stayed open for several hours, and perhaps for much of the ensuing several days.
Eric Epstein, head of the aforementioned Three Mile Island Alert, strongly disputes the adequacy of this accounting for the origin of the problem, suggesting that documentary and expert witness data demonstrate that a failure in the ‘polishing system’ preceded the feedwater pump breakdown, a contention that a Los Alamos study seems to validate. While such particulars may only marginally affect our overall estimation of what TMI means today, they are noteworthy for at least a couple of reasons. First, they show that the interpretations of designated ‘technical wizards’ have vocal and sophisticated critics, sometimes among their own ranks. Second, they may underlie or illustrate explanations for later anomalies that appeared, as when cleanup crews found much greater than expected damage to the reactor and its components.
In any case, all of the first steps toward meltdown occurred in a matter of a few seconds or so, after which the relief valve’s staying open set the stage for boiling radioactive fluid repeatedly to flood the containment building. In 1999, the Washington Post assembled an experienced team of journalists to dig out and reformulate the events of twenty years previously. Chapter One, “A Pump Failure and a Claxon Alert,” notes that after this first flurry of problems,
No more than six seconds later the reactor “scrammed;” the control rods that stop the chain reaction inside the reactor vessel automatically dropped into place among the fuel rods. In effect, the reactor was shut down. Fissioning inside the uranium fuel rods immediately began to slow down.
The pressure inside the reactor vessel than began to fall. This should have been the signal for the open relief valve to close. Instead, it stayed open, apparently stuck. Pressurized steam went right on pouring out of the reactor.
The published accounts concerning TMI, especially all official pronouncements about the case, concur that the reactor ‘scrammed,’ or automatically shut-down fissioning among the fuel rods, very quickly after the disaster began.
However, this may not be the case. Two eyewitnesses to the mayhem of the days following Wednesday, the 28th, for example, authoritatively dispute this assessment. One notes, of the primarily U.S. Navy trained technicians that came on board as the NRC sought to advise Met-Ed on managing the chaotic scheme,
“Not a one of them was ever stupid enough not to know that the scram had failed(there was a nice heads-up display in the control room flashing red big-time on rods that never fell).”
These TMI participants not only testify that they noticed that several of the boron control rods never dropped, but they also contend that they and others have documents that attest to the truth of this assertion. In fact they specify that of the 68 neutron absorbtion cylinders, a minimum of eight, all part of a control rod group at the center of the Babcock Wilcox reactor, never properly inserted into the fissioning core.
As with Eric Epstein’s point of difference, thirty years later, after a mostly successful confinement of TMI-2’s remains, such a revelation may have little practical relevance. Still, at the very least, such a contention might both help explain some of the surprises about the core’s behavior three decades past and suggest that significantly greater radiation escaped to the environment than anyone has ever been willing, at least officially, to acknowledge as possible.
Whatever the case may be, the first day of this event was a mass of fear, confusion, and competing agendas about how to explain, manage, and predict what was transpiring inside of unit two at the reactor complex. The following aspects of TMI-day-one are certainly worthy of mention. Technicians erroneously kept coolant water from reaching the reactor because they misinterpreted, or guages misstated, the condition at the reactor’s core. A loss-of-coolant sequence of events ensued that made the situation at TMI potentially as ugly as any fission disaster might be, short of a nuclear weapon’s explosion. A maintenance violation, in which three valves for the secondary coolant system were all simultaneously shut, worsened this tilt toward an out and out catastrophe.
In no uncertain terms, various human-machine interfaces failed. And, at the local and state levels of government, inside the chain-of-command at Met-Ed, and from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff that rushed pell mell to the site starting late morning on the 28th, competing interests, perspectives, and necessities led to conflicts and impasses that, had the situation spiraled completely out of control, would certainly have effected many more thousands, or tens of thousands, of casualties.
As just one example of such contrariness, readers can turn to the truly outstanding 1999 series by the Washington Post that recalled the accident on its 20th anniversary. The first of fifteen installments in this series uncovered that,
“In a February 4, 1974 letter Met Ed wrote Middletown borough officials that ‘even the worst possible accident postulated by the AEC [Atomic Energy Commission] would not require evacuation of the borough of Middletown. . . it can he seen that it is unnecessary to have specific evacuation routes identified. . .'”
As a result, questions of public safety and minimizing risk were very much ad hoc and spur of the moment as the accident unfolded, which increased the dismay and eventually the anger of local and State officials, and added significantly to the trepidation of affected citizens.
Because of the multiple and multiplying breakdowns that took place in the first five hours of this catastrophe, and due to the steam jetting out of the relief valve that wouldn’t close, the build-up of radiation inside the containment vessel was becoming insufferable. The melting reactor components amplified the potent lethality of this radioactive stew. Temperatures in some parts of the containment building rose to double or even triple or more of water’s boiling point. And, as an unknowably huge amount of radiation accumulated–in an untold and, because measurement was immediately “off the charts,” again unknowably large variety of ‘flavors’–it began to migrate to auxiliary and ‘sump’ deposit points. These first flows of intensely irradiated gas and fluid were at first only to areas adjacent to the reactor itself, or so many experts now tell us.
Nevertheless, all denials aside, while mega curies of radioactivity accumulated, no sealing of the reactor containment ever took place during the first hours of the meltdown. Thus, to this day, no one has even a modicum of certainty about the amount of Iodine that exited TMI Unit II, or how much then found its way into Pennsylvania air and waterways, to reach a ‘natural’ home in the tissues of living things. We can’t even be positive that Cesium and Strontium did not find their way into the local biosphere. This uncertainty is fact: all reassurances to the contrary are, at absolute best, optimistic assumptions.
THURSDAY, MARCH 29–
Through the night, again and again, technicians would come close to bringing the plant under control, after they employed one strategy after another for managing the now thoroughly damaged reactor, all of which in the end came to nothing. Still Metropolitan Edison greeted Thursday the 29th with a public face of unhurried optimism. Utility President Walter Creitz told “Good Morning America” that all was well, that no one was hurt, and that nothing risky had taken place, although he knew that among the various tactics to try to “ride the reactor down like a wild Brahma bull,” as one technician put it, they had begun to recover the core with water the day before, causing a modest hydrogen explosion in the containment vessel that had put the fear of God’s wrath into those present, just before a spray of sodium hydroxide had automatically covered the exposed top of the reactor core to provide a modicum of heat exchange.
At a press conference shortly before noon in nearby Hershey, Pa., Creitz confronted persistent and, in the case of local press, hostile questioning about Met-Ed’s lack of openness and honesty . Sweating and defensive, no longer capable of maintaining his initial composure, Creitz shot back, according to the Post, “We didn’t injure anybody with this accident; we didn’t seriously contaminate anybody, and we certainly didn’t kill anybody.”
Shortly thereafter, Dr. Ernest Sternglass, from Western Pennsylvania’s University of Pittsburgh, a radiologist fiercely critical of America’s atomic power program, was reporting radiation readings at Harrisburg airport, a few miles away from the disaster on the Susquehannah, fifteen times what would be the expected background. Meanwhile, the State learned later in the day, Met-Ed had flushed again an untold and indeterminate amount of radioactive water into the river, as a result of the already dangerously overcrowded waste holding tanks at TMI. Pennsylvania ordered the company to desist, but for hours, this venting had happened unmonitored and unreported. And around midnight, these releases began again, the alternative being the possibility of catastrophic overflows or explosive events on the island itself.
Professor George Wald, a retired Harvard biology professor whose stern warnings about low level radiation effects on pregnant women and young children had been broadcast since Sternglass’ readings had showed much greater amounts of vented radioactivity than the company had so far admitted, called for removing infants, young children, and expectant mothers from the vicinity. In this tense environment, another crushing blow to Met-Ed’s credibility and public confidence took place. The entire phone system connecting the island with off-site expertise and guidance as well as the rest of civilization, broke down completely. A few staff and newly hired assistants with walkie-talkies tried to manage the complex communications for the whole scene.
The results were as chaotic as one might imagine. Media from around the world had gathered. Local citizens evinced wildly divergent attitudes, ranging from cocky bravado to near panic-stricken fear. Opinions were as varied as the attitudes. Never, however, while engineers and plant experts sought to figure out ways to bring the reactor to a “cold shutdown,” did an accurate flow of information issue from Met-Ed. Government officials, from the Pennsylvania and local emergency management agencies, and from the increasingly involved Nuclear Regulatory Commission, could not bring any clear light on the situation either, since they were so far reliant on the utility’s representations, which quite often were disingenuous or misleading, and, at least on occasion, patently false.
FRIDAY, MARCH 30–
In a natural progression from such lack of candor, Friday began with a dire dance of misinterpretation, misrepresentation, and dread. A small plane above the plant discovered levels of radiation above 1.2 rems, about three times the annual dose from cosmic and terrestrial sources. Such a rate of release, which was consistent with an uncontrolled venting of radioactive gases from TMI’s badly contaminated containment or other holding areas, triggered near panic among local and Pennsylvania politicians and administrators.
They initiated steps to begin a full-scale evacuation, first for those within five miles of the plant, expanding that to folks within twenty miles, a total of over 600,000 people. Before this came to pass, however, at another ‘don’t worry’ sort of confrontation with the press, Met-Ed CEO Walter Creitz acknowledged that the plant had been venting gases from the containment and ancillary structures on the island, due to the rapid accumulation there of hazardous and possible explosive Krypton and Xenon; inevitably, highly dangerous and bio-active Iodine accompanied these toxic, but-not-likely-to-‘stick’ ‘noble gases.’
Creitz disputed the level of radiation that NRC spotters had found, suggesting that releases actually entering the airways had never passed more than a third of that rate of irradiation. Health physicists on site dispute such demurrals as dissimulation and outright lies.
“The industry has at its disposal honest-to-beelzebub ‘cover-up experts’ who work on a contract basis. We called the one at TMI Sid Vicious. …(whose)job…was to advise Met-Ed on how to make it appear that things were under control and releases were minimal even though the acutal situation was completely the opposite. For instance, in one memo from Sid to Jack Herbein…, he advised that the number of helicopter monitoring teams be cut in half during the filter changing operation when Iodine-131 releases were increasing, so that they could ‘prove’ to the public that (they)were decreasing.”
In this context, the governor and lieutenant governor of the State needed an honest broker to brief them on what the parameters of the situation on the ground were, and what sorts of contingency plans they should make. Having already advised that young children and pregnant women exit the area, they temporized by calling for everyone else to stay indoors and stay off their telephones, in case an order to evacuate came through.
Harold Denton, an NRC expert dispatched as a rescue knight by President Carter, said that he would give them a best guess after his team visited the island. Around midnight, Governor Thornburgh issued the order to be ready to move, but he did not give any directive as of yet.
While an increasing polarization appeared to be happening between the NRC and Met-Ed as Friday wore on, and bad news seemed the norm and worse news seemed to lie ahead, eyewitness and community testimonials suggest that Federal officials were actually aware of much of the alleged cover-up and fabrication. Such stakeholders contend that the utility was offering in its attempts both to reassure people and limit its liability on the chance that the entire thing “didn’t blow up in their faces,” as one interviewee put it. Just about everyone
“was well aware that everyone was lying big time and actively involved in covering up the severity of the accident–including ongoing doses and releases to the public, including the NRC. Think about that. By law we had to report the violations to the NRC, but the NRC was part of the cover-up.”
This is direct eyewitness testimony, which also includes extensive written documentation, about an accident that every ‘authoritative’ source concludes was relatively trivial in its actual release of harmful agents. If even a fraction of these allegations are true, Friday was probably no more lethal than Wednesday and Thursday, when, because of the intensity of the meltdown that resulted from the failed scram, not only millions of curies of gaseous and liquid emissions steamed into the Pennsylvania sky, but also significant particulate releases happened, meaning that cesium, strontium, uranium, and plutonium contaminated the environs. Nonetheless, by late Friday, the teams of techies again felt as if they were close to bedding down the TMI II beast.
SATURDAY, MARCH 31–
Midday or so on Saturday, though, such happy estimates had receded. The threat of a hydrogen bubble explosion–its size may have exceeded a thousand cubic feet since Friday night, and at different junctures oxygen levels seemed to be rising–reached its zenith. Because of its intensity, a fission reaction will naturally dissociate some water molecules, resulting in elemental hydrogen. Under normal operating conditions, vents disperse this volatile gas; however, the combination of the damaged reactor, and the release of oxygen attendant on attempts to cool the overheated core created circumstances in which either trying to ‘shrink’ the bubble or moderate the torrid temperatures might ignite a hydrogen-oxygen flash.
The explosion on Wednesday had alerted the crisis teams to such a possibility at TMI, and for reasons that no one could completely explain at the time, early Saturday morning, and throughout the following hours, this concentration of hydrogen gas seemed to grow, or at least not to reduce, in size. Under circumstances easily imaginable, oxygen might build up as well, and an explosive union would be unavoidable.
The consequences of such a detonation could have breached the reactor vessel, and possibly the containment structure itself, making mass carnage in South Central Pennsylvania, or even beyond, an odds-on proposition. In this context, Med-Ed personnel continued to downplay concerns, though many onlookers and journalists openly rejected such views. Clearly, though, calming TMI’s savagery remained an elusive goal.
Saturday also saw the formal assumption of operational control of TMI by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which until that point had remained advisory to the utility company. Providing public information also devolved on NRC staff beginning Saturday. Federal experts, echoing the doubts of reporters who had called the untility’s John Herbein to task for his dismissing concerns as unwarranted, publicly contradicted Met-Ed’s final public assertions of confidence, for example debunking that the hydrogen accumulation was dissipating.
The Washington Post describes this parry and thrust in detail, as do other accounts of the accident. In the end, whatever confluence of interest and perspective united company and government views, the last Saturday of March 1979 elicited a gritty confrontation between the two camps. The Post‘s writers describe it this way:
“As the NRC officials who were arriving at the scene in greater numbers began taking a more direct role, however, Metropolitan Edison rebelled. During one angry encounter with Denton, Metropolitan Edison officials threatened to pull all of their operators and technical personnel out of the Three Mile Island plant and dump the whole mess into the NRC’s lap. The company retreated from its threat. But by the end of the week, while NRC officials continued to pay lip service to the notion that Metropolitan Edison was making the decisions subject to their approval it was clear who was really calling the shots.”
Just as Friday had begun with uncertainty feeding fear, so too Satuday darkened as a similar dynamic unfolded. Unattributed press reports suggested that the concentrated hydrogen might go off at any instant. Harold Denton had to postpone a briefing with Governor Thornburgh, about planning a possible evacuation of half a million people or so, in order to reassure citizens and the media representatives to whom the people were listening.
What the real probabilities of cataclysm were, as the witching hour and April Fool’s Day approached, we cannot possibly ever know. We could not know the actual odds if it were unfolding this instant and all of the most sophisticated computers, scientific minds, and mathematical genius available were focusing on solving this problem. Too many variables, too much chaos, too much complexity prevails. The Kemeny Commission Report about the accident disavowed the danger of a hydrogen burst, despite the fact that such a blast, albeit only yielding a 28 pound-per-square-inch spike in pressure, had happened on Wednesday. But to deny that the possibility existed and persisted, and that the same potential continues at each reactor in operation, is to deny the material authenticity of existence.
The people around the President knew that the edginess of the people of Pennsylvania did not augur well for the nuclear industry, nor did it favor Carter’s political fortunes. At the same time that the chief executive was stumping in Wisconsin, domestic policy adviser Stuart Eizenstat was formulating a plan to soothe tensions on the banks of the Susquehannah. He advised that Jimmy, alongside Rosalynn, tour the reactor site on Sunday the first. Carter, a nuclear navy veteran and powerful proponent of atomic energy, found this pitch irresistible.
SUNDAY, APRIL 1–
Following the political advice of his Chief of Staff, and an enthusiastic endorsement of the idea by Harry Denton, Jimmy and Rosalyn Carter, donning yellow booties so as not to track radiation away with them, visited TMI. Carter spent more than half an hour at the facility and addressed a gathering at the Middletown borough gymnasium, promising that, though the crisis was not yet resolved, all signs pointed to a safe and sound resolution, without substantial damage to or impact on the public health.
Of course, prior to Carter’s arrival, and after his departure, the issues that threatened TMI II with a complete meltdown were still potently present. But the crisis teams, now including inputs from Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and all the far flung reaches of the United States nuclear establishment, seemed to gain a semblance of control over the wrecked reactor as the day wore on.
Though many people continued to depart, in anticipation of a general evacuation, many felt calmer after the President visited. And the combination of authority, and apparently straightforward acknowledgment of risks and uncertainties, both of which now characterized NRC updates, gave residents something akin to hope that the worst might be behind them, even as some of their neighbors and friends were showing signs–nausea, skin irritations, metallic tastes in their mouths, among others–of radiation poisoning, even as a presumptive acceptance of the nuclear genie faded from America’s consciousness, perhaps never to return.
MONDAY-MONDAY, APRIL 2-9–
Though venting and waterborne releases of radiation have continued ever since March 28, 1979–Eric Epstein says that unit two still ‘routinely’ contributes radioactivity to the area–the worst had passed. By Monday the ninth, Denton declared the emergency at an end.
As often happens after a narrowly averted disaster, ebullience replaced the tense frustration of awaiting doom. A local hamburger joint, according to the Post, named a new cheeseburger ‘The Meltdown,’ and a particularly piquant bowl of chili and beans ‘The Bubble-Buster.’ All around Three Mile Island, reports of distress issued forth–sickness, rashes, animals taking ill or dying, fish kills, and more. However, no systematic effort to collect or analyze these personal statements, let alone any attempt to measure actual dosages of radiation, ever took place. This contradiction, between assurances of safety, and an unwillingness to go and look for problems, remains a key factor in public suspicion of the nuclear industry and its administrative and political denizens.
Though Metropolitan Edison executives and engineers realized that the plant was a total loss, economically, they felt vindicated that their strategy for managing the situation that confronted them the previous Friday and Saturday had worked out. Certainly, as CEO Creitz had declared, no one had died. NRC and nuclear energy officials, although they might harbor hope that a nuclear America might still beckon, probably realized that difficulties would confront their industry in the months and years ahead, problems of increased regulation and stricter design requirements that would make their attempts to sell nuclear solutions to electricity needs much more difficult.
And in the households and community centers in an around Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the upwelling of a movement against nukes was taking hold that to this day continues to resonate. These frequently deeply conservative believers in the American government and its institutions had confronted something that they had never considered possible. TMI gave birth to a sense of activism and skepticism that remains deeply rooted among long time residents of the area; it also fueled a social chain reaction that deep-sixed nuclear solutions for a generation.
Now, however, that generation is passing. And, touting itself as the ‘green alternative’ to coal, nuclear proponents predict a rejuvenation of the industry to such an extent that a nuclear glow is visible on the horizon. A Next Generation of reactors, even safer and more proficient than the boiling water reactors presently in place, will usher in a true age of ‘atoms for peace,’ atomic advocates argue. Global nuclear initiatives will link nations in various stages of the nuclear fuel cycle, so that all humankind will experience the ease and benefit of a nuclear era of prosperous empowerment.
The reader may rest assured that, though they do not have the backing of powerful political and industrial interests, though no economic payoff will accompany their planned-for success, though the advocates of nuclear power often viciously dismiss their capacity for coherent thought, powerfully motivated individuals and organizations oppose any depiction of nukes as “in any shape form or fashion a ‘green alternative’ to anything.” The remainder of this story, posted over the next four days, investigates these competing voices, as they show up both in evaluating the aftermath of TMI and in assessing the prospects of a nuclear future from the perspective of the here and now.
To conclude this introduction to the Three Mile Island debacle, though this humble journalist has the mechanical acuity of a dolt, I here proffer some diagrams and explanations about how pressurized-water-reactors like the models at TMI operate, a few rough graphic expressions of the nuclear fuel cycle, and some charts about and explanations of the biological effects of ionizing radiation, so that the jury for this case, the citizens of the USA, can, on the one hand, sift and ponder the different representations of what precisely went down that early Spring day a generation ago, and, on the other hand, tease out what it all means to us now.