In the gymnasium of Newman High School in Wausau, Wis., the White House telephone rang.
Stuart Eizenstat was calling from Washington with an idea.
The president was, for the moment, unavailable; he was up at the microphone churning his way through a Democratic fund-raiser speech of standard fare - heavy on the politics, and not a mention of the crisis at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.
Eizenstat, the president's domestic policy chief, dictated his personal secretary to Susan Clough, who is the president's personal secretary and was travelling with him that Saturday, March 31.
Eizenstat's idea: Carter should go to Three Mile Island to personally tour the crippled reactor site.
Carter read Eizenstat's suggestion on Air Force One, whole flying to the next site of his day of politicking, nearby Milwaukee.
The memo was short and to the point. Carter should go to the Three Mile Island because his visit would demonstrate his concern for the crisis at hand and it would reassure people in the area about their own safety.
Up until then, Carter had not said much nor done much in the way of personal, visible actions of concern about the crisis. He had voiced his concern through spokesmen and had designated his aides to do all they could. But his public comment had been limited to one statement to a group of editors at the White House on the Friday of the radioactive ventings - that the crisis "will probably lead toward even more stringent safety and design mechanisms and standards." (To some, even on his own staff, it had evoked memories of Carter's old statement in the tobacco lands of North Carolina about how he hoped cigarettes could be made "even safer.")
And yet Carter was personally very concerned about the problem at the nuclear plant and he was surely better equipped than any previous president or any political figure to take a leadership role in the crisis. He had campaigned for the presidency by telling people he was a nuclear physicist and nuclear engineer. And he had written in his autobiography, "Why Not the Best?," about his role with an early Navy crisis team that had helped disassemble a damaged reactor core at a plant in Canada.
Behind the scenes he had been taking an active part in the management of the crisis. No sooner had the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Harold R. Denton arrived at the plant site than he was pulled from his initial briefing there to take a call from the president. Carter had questioned him at length and often, asking specific and technical questions, and finally they had made it a matter of routine that Denton would call Carter at 7:45 a.m. and 3:45 p.m. each day to brief him on the technical state of the reactor.
During one of the earliest briefings when several of Carter's technical questions could not be answered, the president asked one official drily, "Do you think there is anyone there (at the site) who knows what's going on?"
Aboard Air Force One, Carter discussed Eizenstat's suggestion with Jody Powell.
Among the factors that fed into the dicision making was Carter's belief that the media had exaggerated the dangers and had unduly alarmed the public. In his autobiography, Carter had written of his "confidence in the safety of the reactors which we studied and operated." He did not like to see that confidence shaken by others less informed than he.
On Friday, Carter had ordered his staff to assemble all of the television coverage of the nuclear power plant events from the previous evenings news and that morning's; he watched videotapes of the entire coverage of all three networks at noon.
"There are too many people talking," Carter had told Powell back in Washington. "And my impression is that half of them don't know what they are talking about . . . Get those people to speak with one voice."
Yet, as Carter viewed it, the exaggerated coverage had continued, raising public fears the level of public understanding.
"I'm inclined to go," Carter told his press secretary. "Why don't you call Denton and find out if that would cause any problems."
In Milwaukee, Carter went about the ritual of politicking, beginning with a reception for Rep. Clement Zablocki and moving on to a second for the organizers of the evening's Jefferson-Jackson Day dinner.
Meanwhile, Powell telephoned Denton. Should the president come? "Yes," Denton replied. "I think it would be a great help."
Powell wanted to make sure that Denton was not merely trying to be bureaucratically correct. "I could tell the president your initial inclination is yes, but you want time to consult with people."
But Denton replied quickly: "No. I don't need more time. I can guarantee you it would be very positive."
Powell told Carter of Denton's enthusiastic response. Meanwhile, there was another bit of information that had reached the traveling White House. It was the latest wire service advisory.
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP)-Federal officials said Saturday night that the gas bubble inside the crippled nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island is showing signs of becoming potentially explosive, complicating decisions on whether to mount risky operations to remove the gas.
Officials said earlier that tens of thousends of people might have to be evacuated if engineers decided to try to remove the bubble, operations that could risk a meltdown of the reactor and the release of highly radioactive material into the atmosphere.
But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Saturday night that it might be equally risky not to try the operation, because the bubble showed signs of gradually turning into a potentially explosive mixture that could wreck the already damaged reactor.
Some presidential aides still steam when they remember that story. "That AP piece was the crowning blow," one aide said. "The president felt that the information had been in general handled irresponsibly-mishandled-and it was frightening a lot of people. He wanted to show the public that it was not dangerous."
Inside the sterile, cavernous Milwaukee Exposition nad Convention Center, Carter began yet another political potboiler of a speech. In the press area, the members of the White House press corps half-listened, bored at the thought of sitting through still one more stemwinder and still complaining (some of them) about how difficult it had been to turn that earlier speech in Wausau into something that would resemble a news story for the first editions (there is this feeling, somehow, that if you make a presidental trip you must produce a presidential news story even if the president does not produce news).
Twenty minutes into his speech, Carter gave his press corps their news:
"As you know, we have presently a very serious problem with one of the atomic power plants on Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. I have juste had word from that site that the situation is still stable and slowly improving. But many people in that region have been severly frightened, and the crisis is not yet over . . . In the near future, I will be going to Three Mile Island to learn personally about the situation there . . ."
Carter would be going the next day.
On the flight back to Washington, Carter's aides began making the arrangements. They called Denton from Air Force One. Gov. Richard Thornburgh's office was notified. Appointments secretary Phil Wise worked on the logistics of it all; Powell arranged for press coverage.
Sunday morning, Wise handed Carter a schedule for the visit and Carter approved it. Meanwhile, Jessica Tuchman Matthews, the National Security Council's staff expert on the affair, had written a memo for the president on the situation at the plant site.
Carter attended church, returned to the White House, and boarded Marine One for an hour-long helicopter flight to Harrisburg. En route, his aides wrote remarks that Carter would give in Middletown, Pa. The remarks were shown in advance to Thornburgh, who suggested some changes that were made.
The president, accompanied by his wife, landed at the Air National Guard facility in Middletown, three miles upwind from the cooling towers and was met by Thornburgh and Denton. The NRC expert briefed Carter on the situation at the site. Meanwhile, the chief of the Air National Guard fire department, Charles Kline, was telling a reporter that Carter's visit "has helped morale tremendously up here-they think if it's safe for the president of the United States to come up, it's not too bad."
The presidential motorcade drove to the Three Mile Island plant gates where the president, the First Lady, and the rest of the party were issued yellow plastic shoecovers which would prevent them from tracking around radioactivity that might be on the ground. The booties were sealed by tape to their pantlegs; and then they were given radiation dosimeters to measure the cumulative dose of gamma rays absorbed at the plant. One reporter's dosimeter read 6 milliroentgens when he put it on, and 7 milliroentgens when he left the plant.
Carter spent a total of 36 minutes in the plant, 15 of that in the control room being briefed by officials. Its walls are lined with control panels and decorated by a picture of a baby that is captioned: "Sometimes I don't know whether to cry my eyes out, scream, or wet my pants."
Carter then traveled to his news conference in the black presidential limousine, moving past about 1,000 persons lining the sides of West Emaus Street. They cheered his arrival and he grinned as he climbed out and headed into the borough hall. He stopped and drew more cheers by shaking a couple of hands.
Inside his speech was short and reassuring. He stood before a lectern set out just beyond the foul line on the gymnasium floor. The gym, attached to the borough town hall, as a worn structrue and for the occasion of the president's visit the gray bleachers had been pushed back.v. hile the president spoke there were cheers coming through the gym windows as Rosalynn worked the crowd outside, comforting residents. Lt. Gov. William Scanton III during the two-minute speech and left after the governor stepped up to the lectern to thank him for coming.
Carter moved right into the waiting limo after he left the gym and drove away while the crowd was still clapping and cheering.
Some people were not impressed. "What has he got to do with all this" said Carl Lonkart, a 45-year-old ironworker who helped work on the plant. "It's just good politics."
But 16-year-old Fred Lynch, who helped direct traffic for the president's limo, said, "The President of the United States doesn't just walk into a danger area. it kind of makes you feel comfortable."
Last Friday, Carter discussed his trip with a group of editors at the White House. " . . .I felt perfectly safe last Sunday when I was in the control room just a hundred feet away from the reactor core itself. The level of radiation was carefully monitored even before they found out the president was coming." (laughter). Chapter 11
The growth of the hydrogen buble and its inherent threat of a meltdown alarmed the engineers at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission as much as any single incident after the onset of the accident.
"The principal problem we have right now is to work out a means of dealing with that gas bubble," NRC Chairman Joseph M. Hendrie had said in a weary voice at a crowded news conference Saturday afternoon at NRC headquarters in Bethseda. "We have to get that gas bubble out of the reactor."
The day before, early Friday afternoon, Sol Levine, head of the NRC's reactor safety division, called the Energy Department's Idaho National Engineering Laboratory 60 miles west of Idaho Falls and told it to crank up some schemes for getting rid of the bubble. Levine called EG & G in Idaho Falls, a major government contractor employing 4,000 nuclear technicians, to help come up with solutions to the troublesome bubble.
Engineers had told Levine there were four ways of dealing with the bubble, all involving some risk. The two simplest plans were favored. One called for raising the pressure inside the reactor in an attempt to collapse the bubble and dissolve it in the water flooding the reactor room. If the bubble dissolved, it could be pumped out with coolant into waste water tanks outside the reactor.
Another plan was to lower the pressure, a safer procdure in itself but a riskier one inte long run because lowering the pressure would expand the bubble, exposing more of the reactor core.The attraction of this plan made to siphon out he bubble with the coolant water.
Two other plans were discussed, both even riskier than the first two. One was to "sink" the bubble by dropping the water level, exposing most of the core, then flooding the reactor with fresh water. The fourth option was to restart the reactor and create so much heat that the water would flash to steam to saturate the bubble and break it.
This last plan was dropped almost as soon as it was proposed. Engineers pointed out that so many of the fuel rods had been bent and crumbled that there was no guarantee they could restart the reactor. The control rods that move in and out of the reactor to start or stop the chain reaction probably were also damaged.
"There's a chance the rods are damaged and won't fit back in and might not come back out when you wanted them to," one NRC official had said Friday night. "There's also the chance the rods might scrape on something and start a spark that could ignite the hydrogen bubble."
Back in Idaho Falls, technicians at EG & G flooded the NRC engineers in Middletown with questions. How big was the bubble? Where was it likely to be? How much hydrogen was in the bubble? Was there any helium in it? How much oxygen?Was the presusre fluctuating inside the reactor? By 9 o'clock Friday night, EG & G was reviving up its experimental replica of a nuclear plant to stimulate the bubble and test a few solutions.
Five technicians went to work making the Idaho Falls replica look as much like Three Mile Island as they could. The Idaho Falls facility has a core heated with electricity instead of uranium, which makes it safe for technicians to simulate engineering problems on a small scale.
Modifications took five hours to complete. Sometimes early Saturday morning, nitrogen gas was injected into the Idaho Falls reactor and quickly formed a bubble that approximated in size the best estimate of the bubble back at Three Mile Island.
At the same time, engineers at EG & G were working through the night in conference rooms, chalking on blackboards options for collapsing the bubble and venting the hydrogen. At 7 a.m. Saturday, crews began to run the first tests. A computer named Puff, the Magic Dragon, sent out 240 separate printouts of information on what was happening inside the replica of Three Mile Island.
Meanwhile, at Three Mile Island, encouraging news was developing concerning the reactor for the first time. The bubble had stopped growing and began to shrink. Early Sunday morning, the day President Carter decided to visit Three Mile Island, the bubble appeared to have shrunk from 1,000 cubic feet, down to 850 cubic feet and then to 650 cubic feet.
"When the president arrived," the NRC's Denton said, "we had seen a noticeable change."
Denton decided to treat what seemed like good news with caution. The only method technicians could use to measure the bubble's ize was imprecise, involving as it did a possibility for error that ranged up to 200 cubic feet.
"I was afraid of being too optimistic." Denton said. "And when the data came down, I knew everyone wanted it to come down so much that I wanted to be sure they weren't forcing their views to come true."
By Sunday night, another piece of good news came from Three Mile Island. Engineers concluded that their early calculations on how much oxygen might be in the reactor were too high. And while a hydrogen bubble is bad, it is worse if a certain amount of oxygen joins the bubble and creates the spark for an explosion.
Despite the encouraging new signs, however, the NRC went ahead with preparations for what surely would have been a risky maneuver to get rid of the bubble later in the week. Plans still were being drawn up to evacuate the entire region around Three Mile Island. Privately, Denton was telling colleagues to pick a day, a time of day and a state of readiness: Operation Bubble was still a strong possibility. Chapter 12
As the weekend passed the concentric circles on the evacuation maps at the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency rippled farther and farther out from the bullseye of Three Mile Island.
Three miles, 5 miles, 10 miles, 15 miles, 20 miles. On Sunday the last ring was added, sweeping in everything within 25 miles of the wounded atomic plant.
It all looked very tidy.
But no one in authority wanted to see the precision of maps and charts put to the ultimate test. No one, least of all Gov. Richard Thornburgh, wanted an evacuation.
In the division of labor for managing the accident, Thornburgh had but one real responsibility, but it was in many ways the most awesome. He alone could trigger the exodus of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians from their homes. Almost as much as the reactor itself, Thornburgh could produce-through a mistake in judgment or a miscalculation in timing-a disaster.
There is, in truth, something commonplace about evacuations. In almost any month, some Americans somewhere are forced from their homes by disaster-by flood or mud or a train wreck that releases a cloud of noxious chemicals. But most of them are nothing compared to the task facing Thornburgh in the early days of the crisis. And he knew it.
Late Friday, after telling area residents that there would be no evacuation for the time being, he was talking privately to a reporter. How do you actually move hundreds of thousands of people out of the area, the reporter wondered. I don't know, the governor replied, but there is a plan.
The responsibility for such a plan rested with the state Emergency Management Agency. Its top officials are former military officers: Col. Oran K. Henderson, who carried with him the notoriety of association with the My Lai massacre in Vietnam; Col. Charles (Charlie) Crowe, a blunt, no-nonsense West Point graduate; Clarence Deller, a former Navy captain.
The agency had been gearing up since Deller first received word at 7:02 a.m. Wednesday that there was an emergency at Three Mile Island. Everyone soon learned that, in an emergency, they could move swiftly. "Before this, if someone had asked me how long it would take this office to prepare a 10- or 20-mile evacuation, I would have responded that, with a concentrated effort, we could do it in several months," Henderson said later. "But with everyone pitching in together, it took us only a few days."
Each colored circle on the maps on the agency's walls meant more: more people to move out, more evacuation centers to designate, more food, beds, clothing and other supplies to requisition. More confusion.
An evacuation of everyone within five miles of the plant would affect 24,522 people. Ten miles meant 133,672. Twenty meant 636,073. That's where it stood Friday evening.
"Suddenly, out of the clear-blue sky, you were faced with planning on a much wider magnitude," Henderson said. Still, there was a set sequence on paper for launching the exodus.Under the most normal conditions, the state Department of Environmental Resources would notify Henderson if radiation levels were dangerously high. Henderson would tell the lieutenant governor, who would tell the governor, who would make the decision. State officials would then contact county civil defense authorities, who would spread the word to their emergency teams. The state, through radio and television stations, would warn the public.
But federal officials, who were monitoring developments at the plant, had their own contingency for issuing a warning-agreed upon by President Carter, Joseph Hendrie, chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and Harold R. Denton, the NRC's top man on the scene. If there was time, Denton would call Hendrie who would call Gov. Thornburgh. If there wasn't, Denton was to call the governor direct.
As the planning continued, a sequence of events set into motion an incremental evacuation.
On Friday, Thornburgh recommended that pregnant women and preschool children within five miles of the plant leave the area. The vanguard of women and children gathered at Hershey Sports Arena, which had been stockpiled with cots, blankets and food.
On Saturday, Hendrie warned that evacuation of an area 10 to 20 miles from the plant might be necessary because of the bubble of hydrogen gas.
By the weekend, thousands of people-estimates ranged from 80,000 to 200,000-voluntarily had left their homes for safer ground. Their departure would lessen the chaos of any official's order to evacuate.
Still, everyone knew that an evacuation could bring the ultimate traffic jam that would turn an orderly dispersal into a knot of violent confusion. It left open the danger of looting, it meant lost money-through lost wages, lost sales and insurance payments to those ordered to leave. "Evacuation is not something you undertake lightly," Thornburgh would say later in a startling understatement.
But by the time President Carter arrived in Pennsylvania on Sunday, evacuation had been brought to the brink of inevitability. It would be a "precautionary" evacuation affecting residents up to 20 miles downwind of the plant. It would come just before the scientists attacked the bubble of hydrogen gas.
Everyone knew: it would come Tuesday. CAPTION: Picture 1, President and Mrs. Carter, with the NRC's Denton, left, and Gov. Thornburgh, get a briefing from control-room employe during their visit to the plant. AP; Picture 2, Carter and Gov. Thornburgh inspect the control room during half-hour visit to the plant. Later, the president would speak to reassure residents. AP; Picture 3, Carter gets help removing the protective boots he wore on his tour.; Illustrations 1 through 4, Options on the Gas Bubble, By Robert Barkin - The Washington Post; Picture 4, Shirley Flowers reads of possible Harrisburg exodus, ponders going to Virginia. UPI; Picture 5, Teletype is clicking at emergency plans center in sub-basement of capitol. AP; Picture 6, In Goldsboro, Rev. Richard Deardorff found only four worshipers that Sunday.