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  • Table of Contents: What happened at Three Mile Island

  • Special Report: 20 Years Later

  •   Chapter 10
    A Presidential Tour to Calm Fears

    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 thoughts to Susan Clough, who is the president's personal secretary and was traveling 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, while flying to the next site of his day of politicking, nearby Milwaukee.

    The memo was short and to the point. Carter should go to 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 for 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 dryly, "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 decision 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 evening's 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 don't want to pressure you," Powell said. "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 operation to remove the gas.

      Officials said earlier that tens of thousands 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 operations, 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 and 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 presidential 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 just had word from that site that the situation is still stable and slowly improving. But many people in that region have been severely frightened, and the crisis is not yet over . . . . In the near future, I will be going to Three Mile Is land 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 is a worn structure and for the occasion of the president's visit the gray bleachers had been pushed back.

    While the president spoke there were cheers coming through the gym windows as Rosalynn worked the crowd outside, comforting residents.

    Carter was flanked by Thornburgh and Lt. Governor William Scranton 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."

    On April 6, 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).

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