Tag: True Story

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…