Historical (Hysterical?) Trial Balloon


The Middletown Hardees was packed with the usual lunchtime crowd. A day like any other early spring day in the gently rolling, farm-studded south-central Pennsylvania countryside, except that on this day the topic of conversation centered around reports of radiation released earlier that morning from the local nuclear power plant. The date was March 28, 1979, and the world was as yet still ignorant of the extent of the pre-dawn events at Three Mile Island’s unit-2 reactor. No one inside the Hardees was too worried, such things had happened before and always turned out to be minor.

Inside the control room at TMI-2 things were not so calm. The exhausted operators were desperately fighting to control a major meltdown as pumps and systems failed one right after another. Nothing seemed to be going right. Radiation levels at the plant gate were so far above limits that only operators and health physics personnel were allowed in. Site emergency had been declared shortly after 4 a.m. when thermal shock to the steam generators forced open the emergency main steam dump valves outside containment, setting off all the radiation alarms on that side of the island.

The few health physics technicians who cared to brave entry were immediately prepped and equipped to journey off-site again in order to take radiation readings at the Harrisburg airport, in Middletown and along the river on the Goldsboro side. The plan was to have the readings logged by the time the NRC arrived so important decisions about possible evacuation of the local population could be quickly made. They had been cautioned to try and remain as inconspicuous as possible.

Things were going well until the bright yellow Metropolitan-Edison work truck began sputtering and hesitating in the stop-and-go lunch hour traffic. Then it died altogether. The health physics technician [hp] who had been driving eased the one-ton truck to the side of the road just yards from a phone booth from which he could safely call the Island without alerting any locals who might be listening in on the CB channel. He clumsily exited the cab of the truck and made the short walk to the phone booth, resplendent in his full-over contamination protection coveralls and hood, full respirator face mask. He lifted the respirator atop his forehead as he entered the booth so he could talk. His partner stayed with the truck, using the opportunity to take immediate readings with his geiger-meuller. The level was significant enough that he kept his respirator firmly attached to his face. The truck and nearby phone booth were directly in front of the Middletown Hardees.

Inside the fast food emporium the lunch crowd was caught mid-hamburger. After a moment’s stunned silence, a hushed murmur spread through the crowd as they gathered behind the glass at the front of the dining room to get a better look at these creatures from out of a nightmare. Some left their barely eaten lunch and hastily made for their cars. Others just stood in dumbfounded silence and watched. Shortly another utility truck pulled next the stalled one, loaded the stranded technicians and their equipment, and took off back in the direction of the plant.

From that moment on all the air samples taken off-site were taken by helicopter. Among the locals, word spread like wildfire…

Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

We’d just finished putting the second issue of SkatesEast magazine to bed and sent it off express delivery to the printer on the morning of the 28th. We had little time to dwell on some problem with a nuclear plant farther away than Peach Bottom was to our SkatesEast office, which was a scant 4 miles as the crow flies. SkatesEast was moving in a new direction, we were quite busy planning a change in the format that would require lots of work with our distribution and readership, not to mention more than a little bit of magic. But we were confident that we could do all that needed to be done, since we’d come so far in such a short time already. Just six months ago Randall had been a health physics technician at that nearby Peach Bottom plant. We ignored Harrisburg’s little problem for as long as we possibly could.

By Friday morning, the 30th of March, no one in the world was ignoring the accident at Three Mile Island. Pregnant women, young children and some nursing homes were ordered evacuated. The state set up an evacuation center at the Hershey Civic Center, which no one at the plant bothered to tell them was right smack dab in the center of the plume of radiation escaping from the plant. Thousands upon thousands of area residents were pouring out of the 20-mile radius, going anywhere they felt safe. Our home was located between 20 and 25 miles due south of TMI.

As the calls kept coming in from our nuke friends about hydrogen bubbles and huge explosions at TMI-2, we became more uncomfortable by the hour. We knew that Rad, the hp service company we’d worked for until becoming publishers, had been contracted by Met-Ed to cover the accident recovery. All hp’s in their stable were on call, something akin to a military alert. Since almost all hp’s, like almost all reactor operators, came to the civilian nuclear power industry from the U.S. Navy, the alert situation did not bode well for conditions at TMI. We were told with utmost seriousness that the actual situation was indeed grave. They could lose containment at any moment.

Governor Thornburg had scheduled a special news conference at seven o’clock that evening, at which time the sirens at the local Volunteer Fire Department sounded. Evacuation? We threw whatever we had in our arms into our Chevy van and headed out for home. We drove way too fast.

Once home we decided to get a little sleep before heading west. The next morning our three month old van refused to start. Every mechanic in the area had either left town or couldn’t possibly squeeze us in until Monday. Suddenly escape for all five of us was not feasible – we were trapped. Then Mom called from Oklahoma and offered to fly the children out for a couple of weeks. They’d never traveled alone, but our options were becoming more limited by the hour. Our hp friends were still of the opinion that TMI-2 would blow at any moment, so we took her up on the offer.

Harrisburg, National and Baltimore-Washington airports were all booked solid with people evacuating. Dulles was the only airport within a hundred miles that still had openings for flights west. So we loaded the kids into my sister’s Brat and headed south. I cried as I watched the 727 take off with our most precious possessions aboard. How many people were going through the same or similar traumas, we wondered? I found myself struggling with conflicting emotions as we drove the lonely highway north toward home. Before we got there we knew what we had to do. We had to go to Three Mile Island — we had to learn the truth.


    • Joy B. on June 19, 2009 at 02:27

    …now, while the story’s hot. I’m thinking of going with the original title, expanded well beyond where it left off way back in 1980…

    Tales from the Heart of the Beast

    But then again, I’ve an alternate…

    A Gross of Noses

    …because our dear departed friend Bill Hamilton, Boss Clown at Ringling, told us you haven’t “arrived” until you have to order your first gross of noses from the Oriental Trading Company. We’re into at least double digits on those by now!

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