People & Events
The damaged reactor at Three Mile Island was not the first President Jimmy Carter had viewed up close. While in the Navy, Carter was part of a team that helped dismantle the damaged nuclear reactor at the Chalk River plant in Ontario, Canada. A trained nuclear engineer, Carter worked under famed Admiral Hyman Rickover, the father of the Navy's nuclear program, on the "Sea Wolf," an atomic submarine. He also studied nuclear physics at Union College in New York. Given his background, Carter had a firm grasp of the potential disaster that would ensue should a nuclear meltdown occur. As a seasoned politician, he was also aware of the possible panic that would ensue should people come to believe a meltdown was imminent.
Upon hearing of the situation at Three Mile Island, Carter dispatched Harold Denton, the director of the Division of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania as his personal representative. The president was frustrated by his inability to establish telephone contact with Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh. To solve this problem, he ordered dedicated phones lines be connected between the White House, the NRC, and the State House at Harrisburg. By Saturday, March 31, Carter had decided to pay a personal visit to Harrisburg. The national and international media had given the accident at Three Mile Island front page attention for days and venerable network newsman Walter Cronkite was speaking of a "horror" that "could get much worse." Carter believed that the people of Pennsylvania and the nation were looking to him for leadership, so on April 1, Carter inspected the damaged plant. Middletown, Pennsylvania, Mayor Robert Reid later spoke of Carter's visit as providing a much-needed morale boost. "People weren't talking to one another. They were cooped up in their homes, and when he came, it seemed like everyone came out to see the president and it was really a shot in the arm," Reid recounted to writer Mark Stephens.
In the aftermath of Three Mile Island, President Carter ordered the creation of a special commission, headed by Dartmouth College president John Kemeny, to review the event. The resultant report found fault with the NRC. Carter ordered a re-shuffling of key NRC personnel, but no substantial overhaul.