There are those for whom the mere mention of the words "Three Mile Island" will cause the eyes to glaze, and those for whom no detail of plumbing malfunction is too small. In the middle are the rest of us, retaining a cautious interest in the Pennsylvania nuclear mishap but fearful of the overdose of rhetoric that normally accompanies the term, or helpless in the reactor circuitry diagrams where meaning, if any, seems murkily to lie.
Here are two books that help without preaching. Mark Stephens, now a journalism professor at Stanford, served in the public information department of the President's Commission on Three Mile Island. His book "Three Mile Island" manages to weave nuclear technology together with human confusion and anger -- as revealed in phone call transcripts, interviews and reactor post mortems months after the events -- to produce a tale of the nuclear era that is not only readable but occasionally even dramatic.
It is also, as far as I could tell, technically accurate, neither pro- nor anti-nuclear, and sets to rest many of the myths that have continued to plague the discussion.
The fear and the weirdness at Three Mile Island come through along with the bizarre: Lt. Gov. William Scranton III, known to his everlasting irritation as "Young Bill Scranton," splashing around in the radioactive water of the auxiliary building; Food and Drug Administration official Jerry Halperin reduced to ordering 250,000 rubber bands to attach overlarge medicine droppers to doses of potassium iodide, which had been prepared for area residents as a block to radioactive contamination of the thyroid. The state refused to distribute them.
For the most part, the media are the book's frustrated heroes -- with warts -- as they try to make sense of a confusing story. At one point the CBS team sends a getaway bus to its crew, complete with radiation suits. "I counted the radiation suits," says a Middletown reporter, "and then I counted the people from the network. There were no extras."
Robert Del Tredici's "The People of Three Mile Island" is something different. "Let the first year of the event and of what the people said and felt and looked like in it be entered into the record," he says. It is not a modest goal, given the vast divergence in Middletown and the very human desire to reconcile conflicting views into some coherent picture. But Del Tredici resists the temptation and therefore succeeds.
His book is a disjointed, confusing, illustrated series of contradictory interviews with minor and major players in the act, as well as with the captive Middletown audience. In that confusion it perfectly reflects the situation.
No doubt unintentionally, it is very satisfying evidence of how hard it was -- and is -- for reporters to understand what was going on.
Del Tredici gives space, without comment, to all the nuts, the experts, the sincerely wrong and the ideologues along with the genuinely worried ordinary people who didn't know what to do or whom to believe, and who got very little help from their presumed leaders. In a word, he touches all the people the press was trying to talk to in Middletown in order to produce a coherent account. (If ony we had had all that space to print unedited interviews!)
The two books in tandem are complementary, with Del Tredici's interviews providing more insight into characters and incidents that emerge in Stephens' book as particularly interesting -- Middletown Mayor Robert Reid, for example. Stephens relates Reid's anger as it builds while he fights to get some explanation from somebody, anybody, and when he finally explodes at a press conference, it is wholly understandable. Del Tredici asks him if he stayed in Middletown the whole time. "Oh, yes," he replied. "No question in my mind about leaving, never even thought about that. Sort of like going down with the ship."
Stephens traces the chain of events in the mishap from a technician's need to empty a water tank through a Nuclear Regulatory Commission's farcical meeting, to the bungled partial evacuation of the area that frightened the world on March 30, 1979. Del Tredici dramatizes that particular incident with a gripping account form the teachers at a school where panic-stricken parents converged to pick up their equally panicked children. One wonders if the children will ever recover.
Stephens mentions in passing the cows that died and the trees that dropped their leaves, while Del Tredici includes long interviews with the farmers who are convinced that radioation did the damage. Clearly these people believe it, and just as clearly the officials do not and have the numbers that deny it.
A particularly good sequence in "The People of Three Mile Island" is the interview with a bird-breeding family, which lost 500 falcons, parrots, pheasants and other exotics, all in one evening. Del Tredici follows their account with interviews with the secretary of the state department of agriculture, the veterinarian for the state bureau of animal industry and the family's vet, all of whom have varying opinions on what happened.
All one can say afterward is that this is the way things are at Three Mile Island, and it isn't over yet.