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  •   A Decade Later, TMI's Legacy Is Mistrust

    By Cass Peterson
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Tuesday, March 28, 1989; Page A01

    GOLDSBORO, PA. -- Bill Whittock was among the first to suspect there was a problem. Alone in his house on the west side of the Susquehanna River, he was awakened in the predawn hours by a roar that sounded "like a big jet airplane."

    Whittock looked out the window, toward the river and the light-spangled towers of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant.

    "I saw this big plume of steam going up in the air," he said. "It blew for about 10 minutes, then it stopped, and then it roared again. Then it stopped and everything got quiet."

    It was shortly after 4 a.m. Wednesday, March 28, 1979.

    Unknown to Whittock, the newer of Three Mile Island's two nuclear units had suffered the worst accident in the history of the U.S. civilian nuclear industry.

    A malfunctioning pump, a stuck valve and a series of operator errors had combined to drain water from the core of the reactor, exposing its intensely hot and highly radioactive fuel rods. In industry vernacular, the reactor had suffered a "LOCA" -- a loss-of-cooling accident -- so perilous that it is the "worst-case scenario" in the safety manuals.

    It was the start of three days that shook the nuclear industry, and of weeks of fear and frustration for residents of this scenic river valley, many of whom fled their homes without knowing exactly what danger they were escaping.

    The nuclear industry contends that their fears were unwarranted. The containment features of the reactor worked, holding in what utility officials estimate was 18 billion curies of radioactivity -- more than 100 times the amount believed to have been released in the 1986 nuclear accident at the Chernobyl reactor in the Soviet Union. Unlike in that accident, which took 31 lives, no one died as an immediate result of the TMI accident.

    But something else did die in central Pennsylvania: trust.

    "There has been a great loss of innocence in this community as far as people in authority having the answers," said Joyce Corradi, who became an activist against the plant after the accident. "I'm not sure people know what to believe."

    The Unit 2 reactor, crippled beyond repair and nearing the end of a $1 billion cleanup, is a tourist attraction today. Unit 1, its sister reactor, was restarted in 1985 after opponents lost a bid to the Supreme Court to keep it closed.

    But resentments still smolder among some residents who found themselves playing unwanted roles in a week-long nightmare.

    At the heart of their concern is whether the accident, and the occasional releases of radioactivity in its aftermath, will have long-term health effects. Every officially sanctioned health study has concluded the risk is minimal.

    Still, residents here remember that the experts had said an accident like the one at TMI could not happen, and initially described it as a minor malfunction. Instead, virtually every new piece of information about the accident in the last decade has indicated that damage within the reactor was far more severe than expected.

    "I think there is still an element of people who are frightened by nuclear power," said Ann D. Trunk of Middletown, a civic leader and mother of six who served as a member of the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island. "I don't think people have changed their minds that much."

    The crisis in confidence began almost as soon as the accident did. On Wednesday, March 28, hours after the core had collapsed into rubble, Lt. Gov. William W. Scranton appeared at a news briefing to say that Metropolitan Edison, the plant's owner, had assured the state that "everything is under control."

    By afternoon, Scranton had altered his statement. The situation, he said, was "more complex than the company first led us to believe."

    By Friday, the stage had been set for full-scale panic. Officials were still issuing reassuring statements about the status of the reactor, but schools had been closed. Residents were being urged to stay indoors, and farmers were being warned to keep their animals under cover and on stored feed.

    Then, two things happened: First, on the advice of Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) Chairman Joseph Hendrie, Gov. Dick Thornburgh recommended that pregnant women and small children leave the area. Second, concern surfaced about a gaseous "bubble" in the reactor that appeared to pose the hazard of an explosion.

    Corradi, who runs a day-care center and was at home with several preschoolers, captures the situation with fine understatement: "I had the feeling that they didn't have a handle on what was going on."

    Corradi and her family fled to her mother's home, 40 miles away. Shortly after arriving there, she said, her 9-year-old son vomited "vile green slime."

    U.S. doctors told her it was nothing -- perhaps stress, maybe something the boy ate. A Japanese doctor who came to Middletown with several colleagues later told her the incident was "a classic symptom of radiation sickness."

    Ten years later, Corradi's son is in college and apparently healthy. The Corradis were not among those who filed more than 2,000 physical-injury lawsuits against Met Ed. Corradi still isn't sure which of the conflicting medical opinions she believes.

    But the incident, like other vague and unexplained symptoms suffered by residents, has left nagging doubts.

    Whittock and others remember a "metallic taste" in their mouths immediately after the accident. Some residents complained of skin rashes, nausea and respiratory problems.

    Medical experts dismissed the complaints as symptoms of stress. But like the initial word on the accident itself, subsequent reports on health effects have been in conflict.

    A year after the accident, Pennsylvania Health Secretary Gordon MacLeod found an abnormal number of thyroid problems in newborns in three counties surrounding TMI. MacLeod was abruptly replaced, and the state epidemiology director concluded in 1981 that the accident would cause "no significant physical health effects."

    Federal agencies have reached similar conclusions, generally basing their conclusions on estimates of radiation released in the early hours of the accident. Many citizens remain unconvinced. The results of a Columbia University study, the first comprehensive look at cancer incidence in the area, are expected later this year. Few expect the findings to clear the air.

    "I hold my breath every time my son goes for a physical," Corradi said. "I hold my breath when I think of him having children."

    The concern stems from uncertainty over how much radioactivity was released during the accident, and each revelation from the innards of the damaged reactor has raised new questions.

    Met Ed estimated initially that less than one percent of the fuel rods were damaged as internal temperatures rose above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. When technicians penetrated the core with remote cameras, they found far more extensive damage. By the time they had worked their way to the bottom of the rubble-strewn reactor vessel, the estimate stood at 50 percent fuel melt, at temperatures that exceeded 5,000 degrees.

    Because vent monitors malfunctioned during the accident, there is no documentation of actual releases. Technical experts had to estimate releases by analyzing data collected after the accident.

    Temperatures inside the reactor could have affected how much of the radioactive material was volatilized, and thus was able to escape the vessel through vents. Corradi says estimates of radiation releases should be recalculated, taking into account the accident's severity.

    "We had an accident. It was severe," she said. "We were not told the truth, and you cannot sweep these things under the carpet."

    Other residents consider the issue an old wound that should be left alone to heal.

    "If there's something to be found out, I think it'll be very long-term," said Middletown resident Dennis Stover. "They don't know how much was released or how much wasn't. What happened in that 72-hour period? Who knows? Which way was the wind blowing?"

    Stover, who says the news media "grossly distorted" stories about the accident, was working in a clothing store in Middletown when the accident happened. Today he sells real estate in the area and says that, by that measure, fears about TMI appear to have evaporated.

    "As quick as they're {homes} on the market, they're sold," he said.

    Civic leader Trunk agrees that life has returned to normal in Middletown, a serene community of 10,000 with a turn-of-the-century charm and prosperous-looking stores lining an old-fashioned Main Street. "I won't say they're apathetic, but TMI is there, and so what?" she said. "We've learned to live. Some people are comfortable."

    Unlike many of her neighbors, Trunk and her family did not evacuate at the height of the accident. A major reason was that her husband, an engineer who teaches at the Penn State campus in Harrisburg, brought home a radiation monitor to check levels near their home.

    "He didn't find anything and he said, 'We're staying,' " she said. "You have to have confidence in the person who's telling you."

    In the last decade, the nuclear industry has fought an uphill battle to regain public confidence in its technology and in companies that manage it. Met Ed began by spinning off its nuclear plants to a new subsidiary, General Public Utilities-Nuclear.

    But GPU has run into problems, most of them related to how it plans to wrap up the TMI-2 cleanup. The company angered residents by announcing that it intended to leave the reactor vessel and other buildings in "monitored storage" for up to 90 years, and by seeking the NRC's approval to get rid of 2.3 million gallons of mildly radioactive water from the accident by evaporating it.

    Many residents had thought that cleanup meant dismantling the reactor. "The basement is still so highly radioactive that human entry is impossible," said Eric Epstein of TMI Alert, a citizens organization formed more than two years before the accident. "We're just not comfortable with leaving a high-level/low-level radioactive waste dump in the middle of the Susquehanna River."

    The evaporation plan also has drawn fire because the company's pre-treatment process cannot remove tritium, which binds to water and will be evaporated into the air with the water.

    "We're gonna get a dose of that," said Whittock, a retired civil engineer. "They just keep giving us these doses. I'm old enough, it probably won't bother me, but I worry about young people, getting these low doses all the time."

    Carol Clawson, GPU vice president for communications, said the water is so slightly contaminated that it could be discharged directly into the Susquehanna under NRC regulations -- a plan that the utility dropped because of concerns that the public would be upset.

    "People here feel strongly about this," she said. "People here would not be out protesting something else if it weren't for the nuclear plant. They really feel strongly."

    Yet as strongly as they feel about the accident, the misinformation and the trauma, many residents here go out of their way to express support -- or at least ambivalence -- about nuclear power. Most cite other concerns: acid rain, which has been blamed for damaging some of the state's finest trout streams, or global warming.

    Bill Whittock says that he would not have bought his spacious riverside home more than 20 years ago if he had known a nuclear power plant would become his neighbor, and GPU has done little to recapture his trust.

    "I don't believe too much of what they say," he said.

    But on the subject of TMI's continued operation, Whittock says: "If they close the plant down now, we'll be in terrible shape for electricity. You have to look at it objectively.

    "We're still concerned, but we're resigned," he said. "My father used to say that you get used to hanging if you hang often enough."

    © Copyright 1989 The Washington Post Company

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