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  • Table of Contents: What happened at Three Mile Island

  • Special Report: 20 Years Later

  •   Chapter 4
    The Tough Fight to Confine the Damage

    At Three Mile Island the abstractions of the national debate over nuclear power were reduced to frightening particulars: escaping radiation, a "minor" hydrogen explosion, radioactive contamination of the Susquehanna River, the specter of a fallout cloud over the East Coast.

    These were the ponderables weighing on the team of government and corporate technocrats struggling to confine the damage. The crisis managers from state and federal agencies as well as the company contractors gathered in an overnight trailer settlement, a technological campground, across the river from the reactor complex. The mood was shifting from the smugness of scientific certainty to humility, skepticism and increasingly, fear that something had been unleashed over which science appeared to have lost control.

    Though on Wednesday, March 28, the plant's managers assured the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that the reactor itself was under control, the federal counterparts were skeptical.

    Inside the reactor vessel the pressure in the cooling system was fluctuating wildly. Each time the pressure went up blasts of radioactive steam would shoot out of the relief valve, escaping into the containment structure.

    A series of alarms warned the control room team of the increasing radiation level inside the containment shell. Yet no one pushed the button that would have sealed off the structure. It was not isolated until the rapidly rising pressure in the building resulting from intermittent steam bursts triggered the automatic cutoff mechanism in the plant.

    By mid-morning, Wednesday, with the heat readings in the core going off the scale and printing question marks on the computer, plant officials were getting desperate over their inability to bring the temperatures down.

    At 11:30 a.m. officials decided to "blow down" the system – to try to reduce the pressure in the cooling system to 400 pounds per square inch. This was the level which would permit them to turn on the huge pumps normally used to bring the reactor to a "cold shutdown."

    At first, all seemed to be going well. But within the system the coolant was bubbling like champagne. Officials worried that as the pressure on the coolant system dropped, bubbles would be released, forming a pocket of explosive gas at the top of the reactor vessel.

    At about 2 p.m., with pressure almost down to the point where the huge cooling pumps could be brought into play, a small hydrogen explosion jolted the reactor.

    The explosion set off the emergency sprays up near the dome of the containment structure, which began pouring 5,000 gallons of white sodium hydroxide solution all over the reactor.

    Officials in the control room – who now had their first definitive sign that gas bubbles had formed in the reactor – reluctantly abandoned their effort to depressurize the system.

    At 5:30 p.m., they decided to try to bring the pressure back up in an effort to collapse the bubbles. They also decided to try to restart the main reactor coolant pump, which had shut down at the start of the accident.

    When it started, water began to circulate again through the reactor, finally immersing the top of the core, which had been left exposed and disintegrating for more than 11 hours.

    During the course of Wednesday night, the situation in the reactor began to stabilize. The temperature started to come down, and pressure was held around 1,000 pounds per square inch.

    On Thursday morning, confident Metropolitan Edison utility officials began a public relations campaign to persuade the public that the situation soon would be in hand.

    Appearing on ABC's "Good Morning America," Met Ed President Walter M. Creitz told viewers that the plant soon would be safely closed down without injury to anyone.

    At a late morning press conference in Hershey, Pa., Creitz introduced Met Ed's top technical official, John G. Herbein, who was quickly ambushed by a pack of reporters.

    Why, someone asked, had the company waited three hours to warn area residents of the accident.

    "There was no delay," Herbein insisted. "We were carrying out normal plant procedures up to 7 a.m."

    He admitted that it was "unusual" that the reactor's pressurizer relief valve had stuck in the open position, releasing radioactive water into the containment. And he acknowledged for the first time that there may have been human error in the control room. But like Creitz, he continued to walk a delicate line. What the company believed – or at least wanted the public to believe – was that the danger had passed.

    Still the reporters pressed him. "I live a mile from the plant," yelled one. "What are you going to be doing to protect my family?" "Mr. Herbein," another shot out, "is your plant a lemon?"

    Suddenly someone else grabbed the microphone. It was Middletown's mayor, Robert Reid. Why, he demanded, hadn't his community been told of the danger for three hours? Herbein apologized, promising to do better.

    Finally, with 24 television cameras zeroing in on his perspiring face Herbein's composure broke: "We didn't injure anybody with this accident; we didn't seriously contaminate anybody, and we certainly didn't kill anybody."

    Meanwhile, radioactive gas and steam were building up to potentially explosive levels in the auxiliary building. Company officials were forced to vent radioactive gases into the atmosphere.

    As a result, the spread of radiation was now at the forefront of concern, although little had been done to assure systematic monitoring of radiation levels in the area.

    Early Thursday afternoon, Congress, in the form of two visiting delegations, made its appearance on the stage in Pennsylvania. Company officials gave them the same assurances they had given to the press earlier. The politicians were skeptical.

    The company, seeking not to offend the visiting dignitaries, allowed one congressman, John Wydler (R-N.Y.), to go onto the island. Later it allowed Pennsylvania Lt. Gov William W. Scranton III into the auxiliary building for a personal inspection. "I was suited up in an extraordinary suit," he told reporters after the visit. Asked how he felt, he replied cheerily, "I feel fine."

    By late afternoon on Thursday, it appeared that the company's soothing reassurances no longer squared with the reality inside the reactor core. Met Ed's credibility was coming in for a licking.

    Part of the problem was simply the volume of requests for information coming into the company's small public relations staff. One PR man said the company received 4,000 inquiries during the first two days of the crisis.

    Other voices added to the confusion. Two prominent academicians, both critics of nuclear power, made their appearance in the Three Mile Island drama to join the issue with the company.

    Dr. Ernest Sternglass, a radiology professor from the University of Pittsburgh, said he had done samples at the Harrisburg airport, three miles north of the Three Mile Island site. They showed radiation levels 15 times the normal amount expected at the airport, Sternglass said. Dr. George Wald, a retired Harvard biologist, warned of the effects from radiation on pregnant women and children.

    By midafternoon calls were pouring into the offices of the governor and other state officials from worried expectant mothers.

    What might be termed the coup de grace to the day's confusions came late Thursday afternoon when all phone communications went out between the Three Mile Island control room and the command post across the river.

    "For several hours, there these guys were trying to keep atop of the situation using walkie-talkies," an NRC source said. "The whole situation – simply incredible."

    But there was one more startling breakdown to come. Just after midnight, a press aide for the state Department of Environmental Resources turned up in the deserted press room on the second floor of the state capitol. The department, in an untimely release, said that because Met Ed's holding tanks at Three Mile Island were dangerously overloaded with radioactive waste, the utility had for hours flushed the water into the Susquehanna during the afternoon. When it learned of the flushing, the state had ordered it halted.

    But no one had bothered to tell the communities downstream.

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