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  • Table of Contents: What happened at Three Mile Island

  • Special Report: 20 Years Later

  •   Chapter 13
    Hoping the Bubble Will Slip Away

    Middletown did not sleep easily Sunday night. But it could have.

    The visit by President Carter momentarily lifted the town's sagging spirits, but the residents went to bed that night with more on their minds than presidential good wishes.

    They were still thinking about the bubble.

    Until that bubble could be chased safely from the core of the reactor, the residents of Middletown – and thousands of their nearby neighbors – faced the terrible prospect of an evacuation. It could come slowly and orderly or, if things suddenly changed in the reactor, it could come in an instant.

    On Friday afternoon, E. C. McCabe, an official of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was talking to two reporters about the bubble, which then was turning the accident at Three Mile Island into a crisis. McCabe described to the reporters a simple way to reduce the bubble's size, but the reporters did not understand. McCabe then drew them a diagram. They still did not understand and promptly forgot about it.

    •   •   •

    Dick Ryan awoke early on Monday. Like many others, he had gone to bed nervous about the bubble and its portent. But he was there on assignment for the Detroit News and he had to be up early to chase the story for that afternoon's editions.

    Around 7 a.m., he routinely checked in with Metropolitan Edison. He heard, almost in disbelief, that the bubble was nearly gone. Another call to the NRC office confirmed what the utility company was saying – yes, it seemed to be dimishing. NRC's presiding official at the site, Harold R. Denton, would have more to say later in the morning, Ryan was told.

    Ryan and other afternoon-paper reporters with looming deadlines were tapping into the first big break in the story. But there were caveats. Since Saturday, Met Ed had been muzzled, in effect, and its off icials were keeping a low profile, saying as little as possible. On top of that was the company's credibility record. Since Wednesday it had been a case of Met Ed saying one thing, NRC another. It was vintage confusion and contradiction, as puzzling to the pubic as the press.

    At Middletown's borough hall, civil defense director Donald (Butch) Ryan and Irv Strobecker, who had lined up buses for the evacuation, described the doubts that continued to hang over their townspeople.

    "The people here want to know if they have to leave and, if so, when," said Strobecker, whose wife and children had already gone to a hideaway 70 miles north (she came back that morning to get more clothes).

    "They are more inquisitive about what's going on," said Butch Ryan, who was working 18-20 hour days since Wednesday and talking to dozens and dozens of people with problems. "We put our faith and confidence in these officials. They say it's stable, but that's not enough."

    Ryan was prudent enough to have given his daughter some advice. Take the two children and go to the sports arena at Hershey to wait it out, he had told her when Gov. Richard Thornburgh made the suggestion Friday because of the radioactivity. She did.

    But by then, Associated Press reporters were getting the same information as the early-calling reporters. By 10 o'clock they were readying bulletin material that would take the word across the country. Minutes later, the dispatch was torn from the wire machine at a Harrisburg radio station. An announcer read the news at 10:30: the hydrogen bubble was nearly gone and cooling of the reactor was continuing. Then came the music and it somehow seemed just right. They played "You Light Up My Life."

    Through these five days of uncertain crisis there had been little sign of panic. There had been that rush around the capitol Friday morning when the air raid siren went off. There was the building tension throughout Friday and all day Saturday, the fear that the mysterious powerful bubble would be the final detonation of disaster. But panic, there just wasn't any. Those who were leaving left without rush, by ones, twos and threes, in family groups.

    Butch Ryan knew why it was that way. Dauphin County, for example, had battled the flooding Susquehanna in 1972 and again in 1975. The losses were severe, and while no one ever whips a river, not even the Army Corps of Engineers, people didn't panic.

    "People around here are great believers," he said. "They wait for their orders. We find through our emergencies that people cooperate. They are very good. Now, this is a situation that is out of the ordinary. A couple TV flashes caused some alarm, but most people are calm. A hundred percent best people in the world."

    In a way, through, Ryan was only half right. Not everyone was a believer. As he was talking, Middletown's two banks and others in the five-county area were experiencing an "extraordinary" run – clients were withdrawing money for evacuation and others were simply cleaning out their accounts, safety deposit boxes, everything.

    Ben McEnteer, the state banking secretary, said the run on the exchequer had occurred between 8 and 10 a.m. Logical enough. The news had improved that much overnight, the evacuation threat still was real, officials were talking about progress down at the island but nobody was saying it's over.

    Back at the NRC press center in Middletown, reporters were growing restless. Denton was delaying. The AP story had made the rounds, but still there was that grain of doubt. No one would believe until Denton came out and confirmed it. Joe Fouchard, the information man, came out before the microphones ahead of Denton. He asked for calm and discipline – he was exasperated with yammering reporters one-upping each other – and then said, "We have some important information to convey to you this morning." Townspeople, some wearing work clothes and baseball caps, huddled on the bleachers in the austere little gym, hanging eagerly on the words.

    Denton was wearing his long days on his face. There was a shadow of beard, a sleepy look. Long sideburns and the receding hairline highlighted the white gauntness. He teased a bit. He wanted to say first that NRC resident inspectors had been assigned to all other Babcock & Wilcox plants around the country. That was important, of course, but it had nothing to do with a bubble down on the island.

    Then the big news. The temperature inside the reactor was going down – not much, but going down. And there had been a "dramatic" decrease in the size of the bubble, Denton reported. "There is reason for optimism."

    Metropolitan Edison engineers would say later that they had never lost control of the bubble. "Based on the game plan, this is exactly what we expected to happen," said John Hilbill, a nuclear engineer for the company.

    In fact, the procedure that chased the bubble was precisely the one E. C. McCabe had outlined for two reporters on Friday afternoon.

    Still later, other NRC engineers claimed that the bubble, which of course no one ever saw, was not a bubble at all but a froth. It would have taken 88 days to get rid of an actual bubble, one NRC official said.

    None of this may be important in the aftermath. What is significant is that the danger passed as quietly as it had arrived.

    What did happen was a gradual bleeding off of the hydrogen that had formed on the top of the reactor. It was a delicate balancing act in which engineers and specialists experimented with varying pressures in a band somewhere between 900 pounds per square inch and 1,100 PSI inside the reactor's primary coolant system.

    The coolant then carried the hydrogen in the form of small bubbles to the pressurizer, a cylindrical dome that rose slightly higher than the reactor. Nozzles inside the pressurizer sprayed the hydrogen-laden coolant into the top of the pressurizer where it gave off the hydrogen like fizz from a soda pop. A vent in the top of the pressurizer allowed the hydrogen, which was radioactive, to escape into the containment building.

    In the containment building, hydrogen and oxygen were converted back into water by devices called recombiners.

    The problem with the recombiners – which were not ready to go when they were needed – was that their controls were in the auxiliary building where the radioactive waste water had been dumped. So Met Ed quickly had rounded up tons of lead bricks from places like the National Cancer Institute. They arrived in hurried shipments to the plant on the backs of flatbed trucks and in the bellies of C131 cargo planes flown into Harrisburg throughout the long days and nights. They were cemented in place igloo-fashion over the recombiner control panels.

    When everything was in place the recombiners were turned on and the system worked.

    So the crisis of the bubble was over, for all practical purposes. A slow trickle of evacuees began returning to homes in the area, still uncertain of the denouement of the ongoing emergency at Three Mile Island, but a bit more relieved.

    It was now, as before, an event which seemed so grim for all its awesome potential that the only remedy was to smile. At the Middletown Elks Club, they renamed the standard cheeseburger "The Meltdown." A bowl of chili with beans became the "bubble buster."

    Bob Davis, a caseworker at the Dauphin County mental health crisis intervention center, thought a letdown surely would come, maybe not this week or next, but there would be a letdown.

    "When this dies down, I think it will hit us," Davis said that afternoon. "A lot of people will want to talk about what they went through, that they felt inadequate in the crisis and embarrassment at being scared."

    Very likely, but at his meeting with the president the day before, Thornburgh said something that had caught a flash of what was going on. "Pennsylvanians are tough people," said the governor. They had to be.

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