These are the last in a series of articles chronicling the events surrounding the Three Mile Island accident, America's worst nuclear mishap.
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 ofthe reactor, the residents of Middletown-and thousands of their nearby neighbors-faced the terrible prospect of an evacuation. It could come slowly and be orderly or, if things suddenly changed in the reactor, it could come in an instant.
What none of them knew was that the bubble, as if by an act of presidential exorcism, might slip silently away.
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 accidents at Three Mile Island into a crisls. McCabe described to the reporters a simple way to reduce the bubble's size, but the reporters did not understand. McCable then drew them a diagram. They still did not understand and promptly for got 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 diminishing. 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 officials 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 puzzing to the public as the press.
At Middletownn's borough hall, civil defense director Donald (Butch) Ryan and Irv Strobecker, who had lined up buses for the evacuation, described the doubts that contined 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 buletin 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 LighUp 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 through 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 Country, for example, had battled the flooding Susquehanna in 1972 and again in 11975. 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, though, 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 not 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's 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 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 has 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 bitmore 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 chilli with beans became the "bubble buster."
Bob Davis, a caseworker at the Dauphin County mental health criis 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. Chapter 14
On the hockey rink ice was a makeshift plywood floor. On the floor was a long row of rickety Red Cross cots. On each cot was a stiff gray Army blanket. On the blanket on her assigned cot sat Carole Roy, her belly big with child, her face etched with discomfort and fatigue.
It was Saturday, April 7-ten days after the first alarm at Three Mile Island, eight days after the warning to Carole and other members of the "vulnerable population" to flee whatever poisons might have been carried in the steam that poured out into the wind over the nuclear plant, five days after the demise of the bubble had left the plant in more or less stable condition-and Carole Roy, with the child she had been carrying for seven months, was till a refugee.
Carole's husband had driven her from their home in York Haven, three miles straight south of Three Mile Island, to the refugee center in the hockey rink at Hershey Sports Arena ("Home Den of the Hershey Bears") within two hours after they had head the "evacuation advisory" on the radio. She had been determined to stay there as long as the danger lasted.
But eight nights on that stiff, narrow cot had taken a toll, Eight days of utter inactivity in what seemed more and more like a nuclear prison had been enough. "Well, I'm worried about the radiation, if there still is any, because I don't know," she said. "But I think I'm going to go home."
Carole seemed to feel guilt about her decision and the effect it might have on the child in her womb; it might be too soon, she kept saying. In fact, however, she was one of the last holdouts.Although the evacuation advisory was till in effect, by the end of last week the evacuation itself was effectively over.
By Friday, April 6, the state Office of Civil Defense estimated that 90 percent of those who fled the nuclear accident had returned home. Whether or not you could trust that statistic-since the Civil Defense types could not say, within 100,000 people, how many had left, they could not really say how many had come back-it was evident that life in Harrisburg and its suburbs was returning to routine.
The threat of disaster had made normality a news event, and so this was the news from the area around Three Mile Island by the end of last week: There were traffic jamsat rush hour. There were shoppers in the grocery stores (although few stocked up for more than a day or two at a time). There were students in class at most schools. There were people-but stiff a minority-who on radio call-in shows complained about something other than Met Ed.
For the time being, however-and perhaps for a long time to come-the very concept of "normal life" would be a relative term for the people unlucky enough to live near the nation's first serious nuclear mishap.
Nor was the plant itself the only problem for the people of the Susquehanna Valley.
After-effects of the accident seemed to be a tableau of compounded unfairness. For one thing, the victims found when they came home that they would have to help pay the bill for the accident that victimized them. Since the nuclear plant had provided about 40 percent of Met Ed's power, the utility had to replace it by buying higher priced power elsewhere-and the cost about $7.50 a month for the average customer, would be passed on automatically. Under the rate-setting statutes, moreover, Met Ed's customers could be charged for some of the cost of cleaning up the utility's nuclear mess.
There was other economic fallout as well. Real estate prices seemed sure to plummet. "Who's going to buy a house in the shadow of this plant?" one realtor asked rhetorically. Despite daily assurances from federal agencies that the region's environment and agricultural products had not been contaminated, the public seemed wary. Gov. Richard Thornburgh complained about stores posting signs declaring "We Don't Sell Pennsylvania Milk." The Pennsylvania Dutch Visitors Center said half the hotel reservations in the Lancaster area had been canceled the week after the accident, foreboding bad times for the region's important tourism industry.
Eleven miles northwest of Three Mile Island, at its headquarters on Chocolate Ave, in Hershey, the Hershey Food Corp. was frankly worried about the impact of the accident on its $678.7 million in annual sales.
Daily the firm announced that its flagship product, milk chocolate, was being made with stores of milk laid in before the plant vented radioactive gases into the air.
And it mobilized a team to monitor its products, gather radiation data and be prepared to counter whatever suspicions chocolate lovers might be harboring.
The most serious difficulties facing the returning refugees, though, were the intangibles-the seeds of anxiety, distrust and anger sown with the first alarmms from Three Mile Island and fertilized by the confusion and contradictions that marked the official response to the crisis.
For some people, the gnawing sense of being trapped in a situation that no one could control was so troublesome that they sought professional help. "My phone was ringing constantly," Dr. Rovert Fisher, a Harrisburg psychiatrist, told a newspaper. "People were very frightened."
There was, for most people, the wrenching realization that something they had come to trust was no longer trusttworthy. The people around Three Mile Island had generally been boosters of nuclear power, scoffing at the warnings of the anti-nuclear lobby. But the accident in their back yards brought a change in attitude.
"If our faith in Met Edd is shaken," wrote the Middletown Press and Journal in a front-page editorial, "our belief in the entire nuclear power industry also rides on thin ice too."
There were, to be sure, some who said their belief in the nuclear plant was not undermined. "The way I see it," said a bartender in Goldsboro, looking out his door at the cooling towers a mile and a half away, "the damn thing worked. They had a problem, and they tooke care of it. Who got hurt?"
To the extent one can judge from a few days' visit, however, that seemed to be a minority view. More common, at least among those who were making their opinions known, was the mental conversion experienced by Jim Larry, a lawn service worker in Yocumtown.
"Before," Larry said glumly, "I bought the sales pitch, the whole 10 yards-that the chances of anything bad at the plant are minuscule. And now here we are. I've changed my views on the thing, personally."
In between were the many who said they were still not sure what they thought about the experience that controlled their lives. They wanted to believe that nothing serious had happened-but could they really believe that?
"Just because we didn't all drop dead, people here think we're okay," said Carmella Swartz just yesterday. Last night was the first night that Minchael, her son, and scores of other children here had slept in their own beds since the evacuation of pregnant women and small children 11 days ago.
As she straightened the hood on her son's parka, she said, "I don't think these children should be brought back yet."
Neverthelesss, the children of Middletown were back yesterday. In the Swartzes' case it was pure economics. They couldn't afford to pay for a motel room after emergency assistance was cut off yesterdday.
Karen Cooke, 20, one of the hundreds of pregnant woment evacuated from the immediate area of the plant was back at work for the first time in the 11 days. 'what's the sense of dwelling on something like this," she said "What's going to happen is going to happen."
But the strong undercurrent of anxiety persisted. Skip Campbell was worried about his home and his 5 year-old son Mat, whom he took to have examined for radiation.
Several score people were examined in a mobile radiation scanner that looks like an aluminum coffin attached to a series of computers. All tests came up negative.
"We didn't expect to find anything and we haven't yet," said Dr. R. L. Gotchy, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission radiation expert. "The main thing is to provide assurances to people. A lot of people here are scared to death."
I don't know," Carole had said over the weekend, looking up from her Red Cross cot. "I don't suppose I'll forget this, living in this place for a week. But what happens next? I don't know what to say."
As she began gathering her things to go home, Roy paused for a minute over one item of apparel some body had given her in the hockey rink-one of those sick-humor T-shirts that cropped up as soon as people recognized that there was money to be made in the aftermath of the accident. Roy decided she didn't want to take it home at all, so she plopped it on an empty cot and went on packing.
The sirt lay there, unwanted, bearing the slogan that captured the unhappy consensus among the neighbors of the nuclear accident that could't happen: "I Survived Three Mile Island . . . I Think." CAPTION: Picture 1, Reactor No. 1 at Three Mile Island is shut for routine maintenance; at ruined reactor No.2, workers are waiting for water temperature to go below boiling. By Frank Johnston-The Washington Post;Illustration, VENTING THE HYDROGEN GAS By Robert Barkin-The Washington Post;Picture 2, At evacuation center in Hershey Park, Pa., a volunteer Red Cross worker helps children get their lunch. AP; Picture 3, Container of radioactive waste starts ride from Three Mile Island to disposal point in South Carolina. UPI; Picture 4, These T-shirts emerged in Harrisburg area in wake of Three Mile Island mishap. UPI; Picture 5, Church in Middletown was busy last Sunday; the previous Sunday it was vacant. UPI; Picture 6, Evacuees Ronald and Yvonne Black and Lisa Marie return to Middletown home. AP; Picture 7, Harrisburg residents file insurance claims for their moving costs, some of which, right, were paid quickly. AP/UPI