The Film & More
Enhanced Transcript Continued
It was built on a sandbar called Three Mile Island, in the middle of
Pennsylvania's Susquehanna River, just 10 miles downstream from the state
capitol of Harrisburg. The plant's state-of-the-art Unit-2 reactor had been
generating electricity for nearly a year.
Three Mile Island was something you would go to the river and would say wow,
look at that power plant, look at those big steam towers. I was jut amazed,
wide-eyed, looking at the thing and it was just kind of neat -- it was high
technology and this was going to be power that was too cheap to meter.
People in the communities surrounding the plant had grown accustomed to the
giant concrete fortress. For them, Wednesday, March 28, 1979 began like any
They didn't yet know that events leading to the worst nuclear accident in
American history had already been set in motion.
It started in the pre-dawn hours with a simple plumbing breakdown. Then a
small valve opened to relieve pressure in the reactor. But unknown to the
plant operators, it malfunctioned and failed to close. This in turn caused
cooling water to drain from the open valve. The nuclear core began to
Technical failures were then compounded by human error. Confronted by baffling
and contradictory readings, the operators shut off the emergency water system
that would have cooled the core.
If the operators had not intervened in that accident at Three Mile Island and
shut off the pumps, the plant would have saved itself. They had thought of
absolutely everything except what would happen if the operators intervened
So the operators thought they were saving the plant by cutting off the
emergency water when, in fact, they had just sealed its fate.
Within minutes, the control room console went wild. Hundreds of lights started
flashing, accompanied by piercing horns and sirens. One operator recalled that
the console was "lit up like a Christmas tree."
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
There was such an avalanche of alarms that the operators couldn't really
address any of those on a real time basis. They were just catching up and
trying to -- trying to prioritize and handle the most important ones and do
what they could.
There was so much data being dumped to the computer and the process was so slow
in getting it analyzed and printed out, that when they'd go to look for data
from their computer print-out, it wasn't there until an hour-and-a-half later.
By early morning, the exposed part of the core was beginning to cook.
Temperatures in the reactor were already reaching 4,300 degrees. At 5,200
degrees -- meltdown -- a scenario called the "China Syndrome".
The core could have turned into a molten white-hot mass, could have gone
through the concrete base of the plant and into ground water which is
immediately below the foundation of the plant, could have fractured the earth
instantly in all directions and geysers of radioactive steam would have
spouted, ah, into the air, ah, through the parking lots and a cloud of death
would have wafted north over the City of Harrisburg.
Operators remained convinced that the core was covered and safe. No one in the
control room could see that Three Mile Island was hurtling toward meltdown.
Most of us who had spent our lives in this business didn't believe that could
happen. We had a mindset that said we had these marvelous safety systems which
had back-ups of back-ups...... So there was that mindset that I think made it
hard for people to really come to grips with the reality that severe damage had
As the operators struggled to make sense of the accident, workers throughout
the plant flocked to the control room.
By 6:15 the control room must of had 50-60 people in it and more arriving every
moment. Then they get the alarm "Radiation in the control room." Well, that's
got to be a heart stopper.
Contaminated water from the open valve had leaked into an adjoining building
and was releasing radioactive gases throughout the plant.
With radiation threatening to escape to surrounding communities, Supervisor
Gary Miller declared the first "general emergency" ever to arise at a nuclear
power plant in the United States.
The operators, grabbing their respirators, would remain at the helm of the
The radiation level inside the containment dome was reading 10,000 rems per
hour -- a dose so high, only minutes of exposure would prove fatal.
For four hours, Three Mile Island had smoldered in silence. Shortly after 8:00
A.M., a local radio station began picking up the first hints of trouble.
We first learned that something was wrong at Three Mile Island because our
traffic reporter, he's out driving around, and he says,
"You know, I'm getting things up on the scanners here, he said, are you picking
this up? I said, I don't know what you're talking about. And he said, well,
apparently they've mobilizing some fire equipment and emergency people at Three
And he said, oh by the way, there's no steam coming out of the cooling towers.
So now I'm thinking, hmm, something's really weird going on there.... I called
Three Mile Island
o/c and the receptionist had been so harried that morning that she didn't know,
she didn't listen to me. She just put me through to the control room. Now I
hear all this commotion behind it, you know, in the background, there's a guy
on the line I tell him who I am, and I ask him, is there fire equipment there?
And he says, I can't talk now, we've got a problem. And boy, (Laughs), did
they ever have a problem.
Announcer: "Okay, we have this news bulletin that we're gonna get on right now.
Here's Mike Pintek."
Pintek: "Okay, thank you Jim."..."There is a general emergency at Metropolitan
Edison Company's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. A utility spokesman
says there was a problem with a feedwater pump this morning..."
As word of the accident slowly leaked to the outside world, the Governor of
Pennsylvania, Dick Thornburgh, learned the news from his aides.
The minute I heard that there had been an accident at a nuclear facility, I
knew we were in another dimension.
Thornburgh immediately turned to Lieutenant Governor William Scranton III,
chair of the state's emergency council.
There had never been anything like this.... it wasn't something you could see
or feel or taste or touch. We were talking about radiation, which generated an
enormous amount of fear.
Three Mile Island's parent company, Metropolitan Edison or MET ED, told
Scranton that no radiation had been detected off plant grounds.
SCRANTON PRESS CONFERENCE:
"The Metropolitan Edison Company has informed us that there has been an
incident at Three Mile Island Unit number two. Everything is under control.
There is and was no danger to public health and safety."
In his first statement to the press, the Lieutenant Governor confidently
reiterated MET ED's assurances. He would soon learn that his confidence had
What I had said in the morning was, "There has been no significant offsite
release," only to find out moments later that, in fact, there had been an
offsite release... and the indignation that welled up within me in was
memorable. I still haven't gotten over that.
It was at that point that I realized that we could not rely on Metropolitan
Edison for the kind of information we needed to make decisions.
Early that afternoon, the national press began converging at Three Mile
Island's Observation Center.
MET ED had never faced a public relations crisis like this. Unprepared for the
media onslaught, they chose Jack Herbein, an engineer with no prior press
experience, as their spokesman.
HERBEIN PRESS CONFERENCE
"The question was why didn't we notify the people. The accide--, the incident
occurred uh, this morning around 4 o'clock. The safety systems functioned as
they should have...."
In the first press conference, they were playing down the importance of what
had happened in the plant. It was an incident, there was a problem, a valve
leaked, the plant overheated, they had to shut the plant down and they were
going to clean it up.
HERBEIN PRESS CONFERENCE
"Things are falling off right now as I've indicated. The coolant injection
systems are functioning properly. And we expect soon to be in the cold
shutdown condition." (Press asks questions....)
If you had gone home from that first press conference, you would have presumed
that the problem would have been cleaned up overnight. I mean, that's the
impression they gave us.
I didn't buy it and there were quite a few other people that didn't buy it.
Radiation releases were of grave concern for Mayor Robert Reid. His community
of Middletown lay just up river from Three Mile Island.
I remember a man by the name of Herbein. And when I asked him about the
release and the time of the accident, he more or less looked at if from the
standpoint of, "Mayor, you don't know anything about nuclear energy. I'm the
ROBERT REID PRESS INTERVIEW
Reporter: "How dangerous did the power company tell you the situation was?"
Reid: "Well, I talked to a representative from the company and he assured me
there was really nothing to be concernd about."
Reporter: "Are you satisfied with that answer? Or do you want some
Reid: "I think we will get better answers."
I was angry from that Wednesday -- ah, in fact, I'm still angry. I just -- I
was just upset with the way things were being handled and the way we were lied
That same day, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission set up an emergency
center in Bethesda, Maryland, to monitor the accident. The NRC also dispatched
several inspectors to Three Mile Island.
As we were walking through the turbine building, which was basically like a
ghost town, there was nobody around, we saw these two other people from the
plant wearing their anti-contamination radiation suits, and they also had their
respirator masks on also. This is very abnormal because this is an area of the
plant that normally is not contaminated, and that you wouldn't need these. And
it gave the impression like, there is something very wrong here.
As the NRC inspectors entered the control room, they were shocked by what they
Everybody in the control room was in respirators. And so the communications
between the operators and their supervisors and them and us and anybody that
you had to talk to on the phone was all pretty difficult because of wearing the
Everybody was talking through airhoses because they all had air breathing
masks on and so when they would go to the telephones they were (Imitating a
Muffled Voice) talking to Washington trying to tell 'em what's going on.
And I know there were a couple of times when I just took my respirator off and
talked real quickly in the phone and put it back on and said, "Okay, well,
let's do it as quickly as I can," but we -- we just had to try to get the
There was no direct line between the control room and the Emergency Center in
Bethesda. Only two regular telephone lines that were continually tied up.
NRC AUDIO TAPES:
"This is an emergency operator, a national emergency."
"I'm sorry I have no circuits, I can't dial the number."
"Can you preempt somebody?"
Anyone calling into the control room heard only busy signals.
For five hours, Babcock & Wilcox, the designers of the reactor, tried to
reach the operators from their headquarters in Virginia.
The designers of the plant down in Lynchburg could not get through under any
circumstances. And they had to relay all the information through a regional
NRC office in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania to the Unit One, which is north of
the accident, and then a runner would run over to Unit Two and read the gauge
and run back and report this so the people down here are getting fourth hand
information which is largely incorrect. And certainly incomplete, and they're
passing back advice which doesn't make it all the way.
Finally Wednesday evening, an urgent message from Babcock & Wilcox got
through to the control room -- get water moving through the core.
As soon as the operators restarted the pumps, temperature and pressure in the
reactor dropped and stabilized. Sixteen hours after it had begun, it appeared
the accident was over.
It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare -- as far as we know at this hour,
no worse than that.
On national television, viewers were assured the situation was under control.
...is probably the worst nuclear reactor accident to date. There was no
apparent serious contamination of workers....
In Washington, President Jimmy Carter was watching events closely. A trained
what could happen if there was damage to the core.
On Thursday morning, the day after the accident, the chairman of the NRC,
Joseph Hendrie, was summoned before the House Subcommittee on Energy.
HENDRIE TESTIFIES BEFORE CONGRESS
Congressman Weaver: "You responded to a question asking how close the water
came to the top of the rods, with this statement, 'I don't know how close the
water was to the top of the rods.' If you don't know, then how can you say
whether or not we were close to a core meltdown." Hendrie: "I guess based on
just an assortment of aspects of this incident that I'd say we were nowhere
near it, in my judgement."
... v/o within the NRC .. no one really thought ..... o/c that you could have
a core melt-down. I mean it was just -- it was more maybe the Titanic sort of
mentality that this plant was so well designed that, ah, you couldn't possibly
have a serious core damage.
The accident occurred at a time when a growing number of Americans questioned
the safety of nuclear power.
there was a perception that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was in bed with
plant operators, not just this plant, but all plant operators. The Nuclear
Regulatory Commission wasn't a regulatory commission, it was a promotion, it
should have been called the Nuclear Promotional Agency.
The economic turmoil of the 1970's had transformed the nuclear industry. Oil
shortages had raised prices from three dollars a barrel in 1972 to 30 dollars a
barrel by 1979. Enticed by the prospect of cheap energy, utility companies
ordered scores of nuclear power plants.
We had no control over the number of plants that came in the door. I mean we
were just like your driver's license bureau and there are people lined up at
your desk waiting for an eye exam and -- and a driver's test.
And we used to talk about inviting people in off the street to see if they
didn't want to come work (Laughs) for the NRC, because we really had more work
than we could handle. And we'd review a power plant maybe with 10 to 12
man-years of effort. And you've got to remember it takes thousands of
man-years of effort to design a power plant. So we were putting in an
extremely small audit.
They scaled this thing up from the hundred-megawatt demonstration plants, the
sort of laboratory proof of concept nuclear power plants, to these
thousand-megawatt super plants like Zion and Dresden and, ah -- and Three Mile
Island without anything in between.
These monster plants were something that they did not understand clearly.
The valve that failed at Three Mile Island had malfunctioned eleven times
before at other nuclear plants. But neither the designer of the reactor nor
the NRC had taken corrective measures or issued a warning.
Now that warning ... if it had gone out to all the rest of the similar nuclear
power plants, the accident at Three Mile Island would never have happened and
that plant would have remained an anonymous sand bar in the middle of the
A number of people in the mid 70s left the NRC because they felt that safety
concerns just weren't being taken seriously. The mindset, to be somewhat
simplistic about it, was that everything was safe enough already. That anyone
who wanted to raise a new concern, anyone who was skeptical that a particular
plant should be licensed, had an immensely heavy burden to demonstrate it was
worth really perturbing the process. Because nothing, nothing serious had
happened yet. Or at least nothing serious enough had happened yet.
Throughout Thursday morning, Governor Thornburgh felt uneasy. The NRC had
assured him that the danger was over, but he wanted a first-hand assessment of
conditions at the plant.
It occurred to me, "Someone's got to go down there and look at that place and
see it." And, ah -- and I being, you know, 30 years old (Laughs) and maybe
thinking I was more immortal than I really was, said, "I'm going to go down
Three Mile Island was in the middle of the Susquehanna River in the middle of
farm country. So it's not like you've got a lot of large buildings around. I
mean you just drive up and there they are. They're magnificently huge,
beautifully engineered symbols of the power of technological society, to do
good and the power of technological society to do harm. And right now you know
something's going on in there that you don't understand and it can be very
When he arrived on the island, the Lieutenant Governor asked to see the source
of the radiation releases. Before he entered the highly contaminated area,
Scranton was fitted with a protective suit.
It's like getting ready to get into a space suit to go on a space walk. There
were boots that fit over pants and I mean there was layer upon layer upon
layer. And it took me 45 minutes to get in all of the suits and putting all
of the dosimeters on me so that they knew how much radiation that I got, and
the protective boots and everything. And I remember walking in there. And I
must say I was quite unnerved the closer I got to it.
When I started walking in... I looked down and I saw on the floor this water,
which looked like, you know, water in your basement except it happened to be in
the auxiliary building of a nuclear power plant. I realized that what was
around me was highly contaminated.
...... But I came back with a much clearer understanding of what was going on
SCRANTON PRESS CONFERENCE
"On site we were there for about two and a half hours. When I
left the plant I had been exposed to about 80 millirems. And I
The tour left Scranton encouraged. Though there was contaminated water, he
told the governor the problem seemed fixable.
But in the early morning hours of Friday, it appeared the plant was once again
out of control. It was reported that a large burst of radioactive gas had
escaped from Three Mile Island.
Within minutes, Thornburgh received a startling recommendation from a staff
member at the NRC -- to evacuate the area.
For about 45 minutes in my office, with all of our team assembled, we set about
on a crash effort to determine what had prompted this evacuation recommendation
out of Washington, D.C.
This whole question was constantly recycled ... "Should we order an
Thornburgh feared the prospect of a mass exodus. Earlier, he had directed an
aide to review the state's emergency plans.
His report, to me, on the evacuation plans was chilling, (Laughs) to say the
least. One of the things I'll never forget was that he said that under the
regimen that had been established by the counties on either side of the river,
one Dauphin County where Harrisburg was, and Cumberland County, across the
river, that their evacuees would meet head-on in the middle of the bridge over
which they were to be evacuated.
The burden of the evacuation decision was on Thornburgh's shoulders. Whatever
he decided, he knew lives were at stake. The Governor was anxious to get
advice from the Chairman of the NRC. But he got no reply.
In Washington, Chairman Hendrie was still trying to get a handle on the facts.
Frustrated, Hendrie told an aide, "Thornburgh's information is ambiguous, mine
is nonexistent. We're like a couple of blind men trying to make a decision."
As the Governor waited to hear from Hendrie, a siren blared across downtown
..... But that siren was like a, a knife in my (Laughs) chest. It was just I
thought, "What on Earth? Where did that come from?" (P.29)
Someone had set off Harrisburg's civil defense alarm -- sending rumors of
evacuation racing through the surrounding communities.
Announcement: "Could I have your attention please. There has been a state
emergency declared on Three Mile Island. Please stay indoors with your
For residents, life seemed to be imitating art.
Just twelve days earlier, a Hollywood film called The China Syndrome
been released in theaters across the country -- giving Americans their first
look at a terrifying nuclear catastrophe.
First Man: "I don't know. They might have come close to exposing the core."
Second Man: "If that's true, then we came very close to the China Syndrome.
The number of people killed would depend on which way the wind was blowing.
Render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.
Robin Neenan Stuart
It was a beautiful day. A very sunny, bright morning. My windows were open.
My phone rang and my sister wanted to know where I was going.
She was calling from LA saying, "Get out. Get out. Hurry up and get out."
And people around the country were calling and saying, you know, "Get out of
there. Hurry up and get out."
Frightened residents braced themselves for the worst.
Our neighbors told me ... that I was to come down to their house, they had guns
and they had a chainsaw and a big truck and they would get up on the highway,
cut down any barriers that were there and fight their way through, and we would
leave any way they pleased. So the idea that there was going to be any kind of
an orderly evacuation was pure fantasy.
Thornburgh knew he didn't have much time to stem the panic.
Shortly after 10:00 A.M., he finally got some welcome news. The radiation
release had been grossly overstated -- one critical number had gotten
distorted in layers of garbled communications.
The explanation did little to calm frayed nerves.
The crisis in Pennsylvania had made front page news around the world.
Hundreds of journalists flocked into Harrisburg, including Mike Gray. An
engineer by training, he was covering the accident for a national journal. He
was also the screenwriter of the movie,
The China Syndrome
At one of the major New York dailies the managing editor stood up on his desk
and shouted"Who here has seen 'The China Syndrome'?" Three guys raised their
hand. He said, "You, you, you, you're goin' to Harrisburg." v/o So the movie
then became a briefing film for the press.
At 11:00 o'clock, MET ED called another press conference. By now, the press
corps was growing openly distrustful.
HERBEIN PRESS CONFERENCE
"The release that was made yesterday was within the limits that were
acceptable. And was...I don't know why...I don't know why we need to, we need
to tell you each and every thing that we do."
Well, why not, Jack? You know, we only live here, and you may kill us here
before you're all finished.
"Mr. Herbein, don't you feel a responsibility to a million people living around
the plant to keep them informed of every last facet..."
The press became very demanding. They were asking more and more intelligent
questions and more and more specific, ah, answers were demanded. And each time
the -- Herbein tried to back away from it and finally, ah, the reporters got
HERBEIN PRESS CONFERENCE:
Now I am here today to try and ease the level of panic and concern. And tell
you that, tell you ...
I remember feeling very angry and I -- I shouted a question to Jack Herbein
something along the lines of, "You started to melt that thing down, didn't you,
didn't you?" And in the, I -- I guess at that moment I was not a journalist
any more, I was a -- I lived here and I was mad. I was angry.
Back at the statehouse, Thornburgh finally heard from Hendrie. As a
precaution, the Chairman recommended a limited evacuation order.
THORNBURGH'S PRESS CONFERENCE
"Based on advice of the Chairman of the NRC I am advising
pregnant women and pre-school age children to leave the area
within a five mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility until
Thornburgh's announcement unleashed the panic he had been trying to avoid.
Within days, 140,000 people would flee the area.
People left their jobs, came home, packed their cars and their children. And I
remember standing on the corner and cars zipping past me and people hollering
out the window, "Watch the town. " And I said, "Well, here I am standing here.
I'm in as much danger as they are and they're leaving town and telling me to
watch their homes." Things were starting to get a little hectic.
We left so quickly on Friday that we basically took ourselves.
The moment that's so crystal clear in my mind is driving on the highway and
trying to imagine what would happen to this area. All of this beautiful
countryside would be destroyed. It would be so contaminated that nobody could
be there for hundreds of years. I looked as hard as I could at everything, and
tried to burn it into my mind, what everything looked like, because I wasn't
going to see it again.
Robin Neenan Stuart
My father wouldn't leave......Dad was thinking of his neighborhood and he was
going to stand guard.
When I said good-bye to my father, we were both very careful not to say things
more than we were to say things. I think we said, "Good-bye. See you soon,"
to one another. (German) which means "Stay in touch. I'll let ya' know."
It was probably a few of the most horrible moments in my life. I had to drive
away. It was horrible.
At the White House, President Carter was becoming alarmed. For an hour he had
been trying to call Governor Thornburgh, but the phones lines were clogged.
THORNBURGH ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE
Thornburgh: "We had an open line. What happened to our open line? How about
reestablishing that. It was on three, okay....And there over there sits our
When Carter finally reached the governor he heard an outpouring of frustration.
Thornburgh felt let down by both MET ED and the NRC. He asked the President
for someone he could trust.
Within hours, Harold Denton arrived in Harrisburg as the president's envoy.
So I agreed to go, but I saw it, at the time, as I was a fireman and I was
rushing to the scene of a fire.
We were in governor's darkly oak-paneled office and we were all sitting there
three days and we'd been through everything and -- and we didn't know what to
expect. And we got a call saying, "Harold Denton is outside in the reception
area," and the Governor turned to me and said, "Bill, go outside and bring him
in." And I walked out and opened the door and he stepped in and he said, "Hi,
I'm Harold Denton." And I said, "Hi, I'm Bill Scranton." But the minute he
said, "Hi, I'm Harold Denton," you know sometimes you have a this feeling
about people, it just was, this is the right guy.
My first look of Harold Denton was on a television set. He's kind of this slow
talking -- my recollection is -- southern-sounding kind of guy who
automatically puts you at ease and makes you feel more comfortable and safe.
That's kind of how it felt: Finally someone is here that we can trust.
DENTON ARCHIVAL FOOTAGE
"We've assured ourselves that there is no imminent danger to the public as a
result of the way the core is being cooled..."
As Denton calmed fears in Harrisburg, tensions were growing back at NRC
Roger Mattson, one of the NRC's most experienced engineers, had been analyzing
a stream of data from the control room. He was horrified to discover the
presence of a hydrogen gas bubble above the core. The bubble could prevent
cooling and eventually lead to a meltdown. Mattson's report to Commissioner
Hendrie was blunt:
NRC Senior Engineer
Well, what I told 'em was that we had a reactor that was in a condition that no
one had anticipated, that the core was severely damaged. I think I called it a
NRC AUDIO TAPE:
"How the hell do we get the bubble out of there? Do we win the horse race or
do we lose the horse race....I don't what we are protecting at this point. I
think we ought to be moving people."
And at that point I put my two cents worth in on the evacuation. And I asked
him why he was not making the recommendation to move people. We thought there
should be some form of close-in evacuation.
Fearing another false alarm, Hendrie stalled. For the first time the press
began to use the word meltdown.
The world has never known a day quite like today. It faced the considerable
uncertainties and dangers of the worst nuclear power plant accident of the
atomic age. And the horror tonight is that it could get much worse. The
potential is there for the ultimate risk of a meltdown at the Three Mile Island
That evening before sundown, and I'm looking in the sky, and I know this is
kind of dumb, but I just remember the sky was the strangest colors, of purples
and oranges and -- and deep blues and it was just a really weird sky...
It almost reflected the -- the emotional turmoil that we were feeling over what
was going on at Three Mile Island. So that's what comes to mind when I think
of Friday, or Black Friday as I call it.
Saturday morning, Chairman Hendrie was at the point of exhaustion. The ominous
prospect of a meltdown was frightening enough. But, now he had a new worry --
that the hydrogen bubble would mix with oxygen and create a devastating
Hendrie told Roger Mattson to get the answers from the best nuclear physicists
in the country.
At the statehouse, the governor once again faced an agonizing decision. He
could not bring himself to order an evacuation without more facts. Still, his
team began preparing for the unthinkable.
We were making plans for the evacuation of not only people, but of government,
of how we were going to govern in the case of the massive melt-down and escape
of radioactivity and we were going through some very tough scenarios. Ahm, and
not only were we going through tough scenarios, but these were tired,
overworked, very stressed people.
Back in Bethesda, reports from Mattson's consultants began pouring in. The
news was grim.
There was .... a moment of truth for Roger Mattson. In calculating, he realized
that he had one variable wrong, that instead of talking about an explosion that
could happen in a period of a day or two, that they were already at an
explosive level, at any moment the plant might explode. ...... They were
sitting on a time bomb.
But at his makeshift office near Three Mile Island, Harold Denton was calm. He
was getting a more optimistic assessment from his technical advisor, Victor
Stello, a well-respected NRC engineer who was conferring with industry
I think the Washington group was getting more concerned that it might already
be an explosive mixture there and Mr. Stello and his consultants were coming to
the view that, ah, there wasn't any explosive potential at all. And we just
couldn't seem to bridge that technical gap.
The lives of tens of thousands of people now hinged on whose calculations
In the early evening, word of the explosion theory leaked to the press.
By the time Harold Denton spoke to them at 11:00 o'clock at night, journalists
were close to hysteria.
In the state capital were several hundred reporters who got the word that this
thing may explode and it's like, you know, a stone's throw down the river from
where they're standing right at this moment. They went into the press room and
they weren't after a story, what they wanted to know was, "Is it time to get
It's Saturday night. I'm saying to myself, my life, at about 27 years old, is
going to be over, because these -- these arrogant utility operators have
allowed this thing to run out of control and they're going to kill us.
There were still half a million people in the Harrisburg area waiting for
Thornburgh's order to leave. The governor would base his decision on Harold
DENTON PRESS CONFERENCE:
Denton: We see no possibility of hydrogen explosions in either the
containment or the reactor vessel in the near term.
You've got to understand that people in Bethesda were saying, "Hey, we're
nervous." But by -- but we didn't listen to people in Bethesda. I don't mean
that, you know, we were rude to them or cut them off, but, frankly, we believed
the people on-site. And Harold Denton was the guy we trusted most by this time.
DENTON PRESS CONFERENCE
Denton: "Well it's certainly days before flammability limits would be reached
and many more days after that before detonation limits would be reached, all of
which assume that we did nothing but sit on our hands here instead of getting
the hydrogen out of the vessel."
Then Thornburgh added some reassuring news.
THORNBURGH PRESS CONFERENCE
Thornburgh: President Carter will be paying a visit to the area. Will make a
personal on-site visit and I think this is an important vote of confidence and
a further refutation of the kind of alarmist reaction that has set in in some
I knew the President was arriving the next day and there wasn't anyone on my
staff at the site who thought there was anything dangerous or that we shouldn't
-- or that we should object. And yet in Washington there was building
sentiment that maybe it was an unwise thing for the -- the President to do.
It's a great public relations gimmick to calm people down, but only if the
plant doesn't explode. And as far as Mattson was concerned, the plan was
already explosive. Any kind of a vibration might set it off.
On Sunday morning Victor Stello went to church. He had worked through
the night trying to prove the explosion theory wrong.
NRC Senior Engineer
I went to mass and I was real, real tired. I thought I was gonna fall asleep
in the sermon. And then this priest gets up and said that because of the, ah,
potential for us being killed from Three Mile Island, we're going to have
Priest: "The Bishop has said, 'George, you're the pastor. Whatever you need
to do whatever you need to say is up to you to do. You don't need to make any
calls to me asking permission and that's how we decided to give general
This is a sacrament in the Catholic faith reserved when death is
imminent. It is only given when people are going into battle and they might
die. Ah, so they are absolved of all of their sins.
It was a very difficult and emotional kind of a thing. It's a very difficult
time. And then the anger was really bad. What we had done to these people,
just outrageous. Ah, we -- we had frightened them so bad, ah, they thought
they were gonna die.
While Stello attended church, Roger Mattson raced to Harrisburg. He set off
from Washington determined to reach Three Mile Island before the president
At the airport, he found Denton and Stello waiting to greet the President's
Here comes Roger Mattson into the hangar and here's Victor Stello, the other
top NRC expert, and Stello says, "Mattson, you son-of-a-bitch! Ah, how could
you be spreading these rumors around this -- about this hydrogen bubble," and
-- and Mattson is saying, you know, "Victor, that bubble is ready to explode
and if you can't see that, you're crazy." And they're screaming back and forth
at each other inside this hangar. This had to be a fairly thrilling moment for
Harold Denton as the President's deputy because here is the President, the
chief executive, due to arrive at any moment with his wife. And here are his
two top technical experts slugging it out there in the hangar over whether or
not this place was about to blow up.
Minutes later, Jimmy and Rosalynn Carter landed at Harrisburg airport. For
Harold Denton this was the moment of decision.
So I briefed the President on -- on this bubble and the possibility of
an explosive mixture and tried to give him the two sides that were out there
but we still didn't have a single view on that.
Now this has to put Carter on a spot. Ahm, what is he to do? If he turns
around and walks away after he's come up here in order to calm the public down,
that message is unmistakable. And so he did the only thing he felt he could.
He went into the plant anyway.
They left the hangar at Harrisburg airport and, went down the River Road to
Three Mile Island. And, ah, watching that motorcade that day was, ah, a
remarkable experience because they were people who had tried to stick it out
through thick and thin. Had been advised, "Get out of town." "No. No. It's
safe." "Pregnant women should leave, but everybody else is okay." Ah, And
they'd been whip-sawed back and forth with, ah, "Leave." "Don't leave." "It's
about to explode." "No, it isn't." And all of a sudden here is the President
of the United States coming down the highway (Laughs) leading this entourage to
take a personal tour of the plant itself. And they stood there and they
cheered as he went by, because he was with them.
I remember all of us were outfitted with these little yellow booties that, ah,
we put on over our shoes. And, ah, that was to protect us from water that was
radioactive water which was on the, ah, floor inside the facility. And then we
went to the site, we all got on a bus. And the bus then went on-site. We got
out and went into the control room. And that was an eerie feeling. Here we
were, ah, Sunday morning, ah, four days plus a couple of hours after the
accident, at the very site where things had gone wrong.
Just outside the plant gates, Victor Stello and Roger Mattson were frantically
reviewing the explosion theory. For two days Stello had struggled to prove
Mattson wrong. Finally in the late afternoon, Victor Stello found the flaw in
v/o They were using the wrong formula. The hydrogen bubble was never a threat.
o/c what puzzles me is how many people, not just in the NRC, not just at Three
Mile Island, but people in the industry on the phone as technical consultants,
technical consultants who are on-site, how many of them dealt with that formula
and nobody noticed.
Now scientists and engineers were correctly assessing the accident. But back
on the island, there was still confusion.
.... when we reached the gate to turn back in our dosimeters that we had worn
... the President reads his dosimeter and it's reading high. It's 78
millirem. Oh, my God, you know, my heart stopped. "What has happened here?
Have I exposed the President?" And I read mine, which was an NRC issued
dosimeter, and it read zero.
... Turns out the company had gotten so far behind on their ability to recharge
dosimeters and hand out fresh dosimeters to everyone, they just noted what
they read when they were turned in last and subtracted the difference. Now the
plant people didn't see any big deal but momentarily there was mass confusion
on the bus and everyone was saying they had been received unexpected
And I think at that moment President Carter began to lose a little confidence
in not only the company but me.
By the time Carter left Harrisburg, he knew the danger was over. The
President's visit would mark the end of the crisis.
After five days of fear and anguish, residents felt safe enough to return to
their homes. Although they were told that an insignificant amount of radiation
had been released during the accident, they would be plagued by doubts for
years to come.
On the island, lead bricks were brought in to build a wall around the reactor.
Slowly the hydrogen was bled from the system. A month after the accident
began, the Unit-2 reactor was finally shut down.
I don't see how you could ever erase the memories of frustration, of
uncertainty .... punctuated by moments of stark terror that attach to an
incident like Three Mile Island... and the eternal sense of relief and
deliverance when that was finally over.
Three years later a robotic camera was lowered into the core. It would be the
first look at the full extent of the accident.
I remember vividly seeing this videotape of a camera coming down into the top
of the core...and you hear the voice of the mechanic who's -- who's lowering it
saying, "One foot, two foot, we're now two feet into the core, we're now
approaching three feet." and as he's going, as I'm watching the tape my stomach
churns more and "Five foot. Got something." And that recognition for the
first time, five feet of the core was gone. That's when we really saw that the
core had been severely damaged.
NRC Senior Engineer
We had a meltdown at Three Mile Island.
It was not the China Syndrome, but we melted the core down. Fifty percent of
the core was destroyed or molten and, ahm, some-- something on the order of 20
tons of uranium found its way, by flowing in a molten state, to the bottom head
of the pressure vessel. That's a core melt-down. No question about it.
Following the accident, the nuclear power industry would introduce new safety
and training standards. But nuclear power would never again hold the promise
it once did. Since Three Mile Island, not a single nuclear power plant has
been ordered in the United States.