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  • Table of Contents: What happened at Three Mile Island

  • Special Report: 20 Years Later

  •   Chapter 14
    Inhabitants Wonder What to Believe

    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 stream 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 still 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 heard 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 still in effect, by the end of the 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 jams at 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 still 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 higherpriced 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 alarms 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. Robert 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 trustworthy. The people around Three Mile Island had generally been boosters of nuclear power, scoffing at the warnings of the antinuclear lobby. But the accident in their back yards brought a change in attitude.

    "If our faith in Met Ed 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 took 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 Michael, 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."

    Nevertheless, 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 yesterday.

    Karen Cooke, 20, one of the hundreds of pregnant women 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 seared 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 somebody 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 shirt lay there, unwanted, bearing the slogan that captured the unhappy consensus among the neighbors of the nuclear accident that couldn't happen:

    "I Survived Three Mile Island . . . I Think."

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