Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Top 10 Remembering Three Mile Island in 1979

Nowadays TMI means Too Much Information but in 1979 quite the opposite was true.

A first hand account of what it was like to experience TMI up close and personal from a friend living there at the time.

1. We had just returned to the Penn State Capitol Campus for our last trimester of senior year - March 1979. On the first day of classes, a few of us drove down to "Chickie's Rock" to watch the sunrise before our 8:00 classes. Chickie's Rock is a cool outcropping that overlooks the Susquehanna just south of Marietta. It's beautiful and serene and, back then, it was pretty natural. (Now, there are railings and benches and signs about how many people have died falling over the edge.) I don't recall ever feeling in danger while up there, but it's a whole new litigious world now :-)

2. So, the sun rose and we had about 40 minutes to get back to campus - which was doable. Normally. As we approached the TMI plant entrance along Rt. 441, the traffic was backed up. Traffic was never a problem on this road. We couldn't get through and our first reaction was angst because that was back in the day when attendance in college classes mattered :-) Then it occurred to us *where* we were and that something was going on at the plant.

3. By the time we finally got back to campus, being late for class was the least of our concerns. *Nobody* was going to their classes because the campus police were driving around Meade Heights (a student housing complex that is no longer in use) with megaphones to announce, "Stay inside. Close your curtains and pull down your shades." (Oh, that's almost as silly as "duck and cover.") Yup, those curtains will surely keep us safe! I'm sure they were just doing their jobs.

4. Evacuation was not suggested or required at first. But the students' reactions were hilarious to me then - and still hilarious now - 32 years later. Today, Penn State Harrisburg is a diverse campus. But in those earlier years, students were largely grouped into one of three majors: social sciences/humanities, business, or engineering. Well, the SS/humanities students reacted calmly and with faith in the authorities. The business majors tried to rationalize what was going on. The engineers (myself included) had a very different take - "Oh God, the 'fudge factor' backfired." The engineers bolted, not having any confidence that "everything was okay." Most of the other students also left campus by the end of the day.

5. We had just *been* home for term break and now we were all back home again. Many took the opportunity to bring friends home and it was an extended term break for us. Back home, we saw and heard what the media was reporting - a very different and far more grim, hysterical story than the locals in Middletown were getting.

6. Where we in danger? Was Middletown and the people very close to the plant in danger? No one knows for sure. All I know is that my friends and I were sitting high above the river, downstream and downwind from the plant when that radioactive gas was released. If anyone was exposed, surely we were.

7. Data was collected on some of us a few times, but no longitudinal study that I know of. As far as I know, I have no greater health risks than I would have naturally. No one really knows, but I still have my "I survived TMI" t-shirt and at least one former classmate still has his "I survived the Sooper Dooper Leaker" t-shirt - named for the Hershey Park Sooper Dooper Looper coaster which was cutting edge amusement park fun at the time.

8. Information Found at the United States Nuclear Regularity Website : Impact of the Accident. The accident was caused by a combination of personnel error, design deficiencies, and component failures. There is no doubt that the accident at Three Mile Island permanently changed both the nuclear industry and the NRC. Public fear and distrust increased, NRC’s regulations and oversight became broader and more robust, and management of the plants was scrutinized more carefully. The problems identified from careful analysis of the events during those days have led to permanent and sweeping changes in how NRC regulates its licensees – which, in turn, has reduced the risk to public health and safety.

9. Current Status Today, the TMI 2 reactor is permanently shut down and defueled, with the reactor coolant system drained, the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated, radioactive waste shipped off site to an appropriate disposal site, reactor fuel and core debris shipped off site. to a Department of Energy facility, and the remainder of the site being monitored. In 2001, FirstEnergy acquired TMI-2 from GPU. FirstEnergy has contracted the monitoring of TMI-2 to Exelon, the current owner and operator of TMI-1. The companies plan to keep the TMI-2 facility in long term, monitored storage until the operating license for the TMI 1 plant expires, at which time both plants will be decommissioned. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has renewed the operating license for the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station, Unit 1, for an additional 20 years. The new license will expire on April 19, 2034.

10. The accident resulted in no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of nearby communities. The reactor core of TMI-2 has since been removed from the site, but the site has not been decommissioned. According to the current owners website Exelon Corporation states, “the operation of Three Mile Island produces no greenhouse gas emissions and improves the air quality of the region”.

These are dated photos (1979) of my visit to TMI roughly a month after the accident in the blog,  I did not purchase one but I certainly remember the t-shirts, I survived the Sooper-Dooper Leaker and I survived TMI. In hindsight, you think you are invincible at an early age. Today, I am not so sure I would readily rush to the site of most dangerous nuclear power incident in the history of the United States.

1 comment:

  1. I was an engineering senior living in Meade Heights at the time. My roommates and I evacuated to the Poconos after the announcement to close the windows. We did make time to stop for a case of Molson. After all, JE would not be available. I worked at the island part time once we returned. My t-shirt said "I survived the Pennsylvania Nuke Fluke".