MIDDLETOWN, PA. — Almost 32 years after America’s worst nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island, people who live in the shadow of the reactor’s cooling towers can instantly distinguish among sirens designating three different levels of alert.
Many residents stock potassium iodide pills, and the borough of Middletown maintains a “disaster room” lined with evacuation route maps that are updated to reflect every road repair. The local phone book publishes the routes. It also offers a primer on nuclear fission and a map with a 10-mile radius drawn around Three Mile Island, which still generates electricity for 800,000 households along with a certain amount of anxiety.
The crisis here on March 28, 1979, led to “changes throughout the world’s nuclear power industry,” as a state historical plaque on Route 441 notes. It also altered the mindset of this small town in central Pennsylvania, creating a permanent state of vigilance that has been heightened this past week by Japan’s nuclear catastrophe.
“What’s happening in Japan has brought back a lot of memories,” said Robert G. Reid, who is still Middletown’s mayor, just as he was in 1979 when he dispatched his family to Connecticut but stayed behind to guide the town’s response. “But we’re much better prepared now than we were in 1979.”
Over the decades, Three Mile Island has become a touchstone for attitudes toward nuclear power: a symbol of fear for anti-nuclear activists and of the success of emergency safeguards for nuclear supporters.
Comparisons between what happened at Three Mile Island and what is unfolding at the earthquake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant are inevitable. On Friday, Japan’s nuclear agency raised the severity of the crisis on the International Nuclear Events Scale from Level 4 to Level 5, the same number the United States used to classify the far less serious accident at Three Mile Island.
The crisis at Three Mile Island started with the venting of steam at 4 a.m., became a partial meltdown, and didn’t fully end until the last of the filtered water from the flooded containment building finally evaporated in 1993.
But there was never any loss of electrical power, no earthquake or tsunami, only a mechanical problem compounded by human error. The only explosion took place inside the containment vessel, and it withstood the blast. Water pumped in to cool the reactor stayed inside the containment structure.
While pregnant women and small children were ordered to evacuate, the decision to leave was voluntary for everyone else.
“We proved at Three Mile Island that all that [radioactive] stuff stays inside the containment structure,” said Howard Shaffer, an engineer at the American Nuclear Society. “That’s why I call it the garbage can over the tea kettle. Its whole mission in life is for this event. We ran a test for that, inadvertently, at Three Mile Island.”
But veterans of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission remember Three Mile Island as a time of disarray.
Victor Gilinsky, an NRC commissioner then, learned of the incident when he arrived at work March 28, 1979, a Wednesday. Staffers told him that a small pinhole in the zirconium alloy jacket around the uranium pellets used as fuel had caused overheating in the reactor, but that there was no danger.
“It was not until Friday that we realized the fuel damage might be substantial,” said Gilinsky in an article on the 30th anniversary of the accident. “It was five weeks later that we learned that the reactor operators had measured fuel temperatures near the melting point on that early Wednesday morning. We didn’t learn for years — until the reactor vessel was physically opened — that by the time the plant operator called the NRC at about 8 a.m., roughly one-half of the uranium fuel had already melted.”
The unexpected extent of the damage offers a window into Japan’s shattered Fukushima Daiichi complex, where Gilinsky predicts the damage inside the reactors will be much worse than expected, too. Because of the types of gases that have been emitted by the Japanese reactors, it appears likely that three of them have had substantial meltdowns of their fuel rods.
The Three Mile Island experience also suggests that the cleanup in Japan will be a mammoth undertaking.
Luke Barrett, a nuclear consultant, was involved in the crisis response and cleanup effort, which cost $1 billion. “For the first year, no human went into the containment building,” Barrett said, because of the high radiation levels.
The NRC gave money to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to develop robots that could work inside the reactor. Later, the technology was put to work in auto plants and in the cleanup of nuclear waster at Hanford, Wash., a former plutonium production site.
Japan contributed $18 million to the effort, and sent 20 nuclear engineers who spent the better part of a decade living around Middletown. Before they all went home in 1989, they donated about a dozen cherry trees as a symbol of friendship. Those trees are expected to bloom right around the March 28th anniversary of the accident.
Today, Middletown has 10,000 residents, about the same as in 1979. Some who evacuated during the crisis never returned, said the mayor. But development around Middletown, which is nine miles from the state capital of Harrisburg, has brought many more people to live in the surrounding area.
In 1979, the plant was owned by General Public Utilities (now part of Ohio-based FirstEnergy). It’s now run by Exelon, the nation’s largest nuclear plant operator with 17 facilities in three states.
“The new owners have done a good job of PR,” said Reid. “They notify me if anything happens at the plant. If a fish jumps out of the water, they call me.”
The plant routinely tests its emergency plans, said Ralph DeSantis, a spokesman for Three Mile Island. On April 12, the company will conduct a full-scale exercise testing its sirens and the activation of emergency centers, he said.
A local citizens group maintains a network of 30 radiation monitors, and keeps in touch with plant workers, said its coordinator, Eric Epstein. It also stocks 30,000 doses of potassium iodide.
“I’d rather it not be here,” he said, gesturing toward the plant. “It’s a haunting reminder of what happened here. But it’s a reality. We provide an extra level of protection.”
Trust levels remain high in a middle-class subdivision that lies just across the river and a two-lane highway from the four cooling towers, two of which are working and emitting steam that wafts overhead like a cumulus cloud, visible for miles.
“I’m not afraid of the island,” said Maggie Williams, a nail salon owner who met her husband, a radiology technician, when he came to Middletown to work at Three Mile Island after the accident.
The couple live so close to the plant that when her husband worked there, Williams could hear him paged on the intercom. “I figured we wouldn’t be living here if he didn’t think it was it was safe,” she added as she walked her three small dogs down Meadow Lane.
Deb Fulmer, who can look up while gardening and see the cooling towers about 1,000 feet away, said plans in place now give her more confidence than she had in 1979, when she evacuated with a four-week-old baby in her arms.
“The fear comes from not having a plan when something happens, for what to do, where to go, what the sirens mean,” she said. “Now we know.”
Yet Fulmer, a nurse who helps in disaster zones and expects to go to Japan eventually, is unsure where she placed her potassium iodide pills. And she had to search to locate the evacuation routes in the phone book, because she hasn’t looked for years.
The lessons of Three Mile Island, she said, are: “Have a plan. And you’ve got to trust [that] your government is going to get you outta here.”
Others, however, are more wary.
Mary Osborn, who lives almost seven miles away, has become an activist against nuclear power, joining the dwindling number of demonstrators who show up every anniversary at 4 a.m. outside the plant’s gates.
She keeps scrapbooks with photos of mutated flowers, vegetables and deformed animals that she attributes to the 1979 radiation release. She said she tasted metal in the air the morning of the accident, and has long suspected that a growth on her neck that she had removed was due to that.
The television in her living room has been turned to CNN nonstop since the Japan nuclear crisis began.
“This week, it’s like TMI never stopped,” she said, wearing a “They Lie” T-shirt adorned with “No Nukes” buttons and the badge her ex-husband wore when he helped build the plant. “It’s been a nightmare.”
NRC historian J. Samuel Walker said epidemiological studies of some 32,000 people who lived within a five-mile radius of the reactors have shown no increased incidence in cancer that could be attributed to radiation releases from the accident.
But some residents are skeptical. “We have friends who got colon cancer and have no history of it in the family,” Bonnie Blocher said as she prepared to get her nails done at Williams’s home salon. “How do we know the studies were accurate?”
Walker’s view is that during the 1970s, “proponents of nuclear power had underestimated the risks of a severe accident and that nuclear critics had overstated the likely consequences.”
Improvements in reactor design and performance — as well as concerns about climate change — have boosted support for nuclear power. But Walker warned against complacency.
“Before the accident, nuclear experts were confident that they had solved the most important reactor safety issues,” he has written. “This confidence and the complacency it fostered were shattered on the morning of March 28, 1979.”