People & Events
"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." As Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania during the Three Mile Island crisis, William Scranton III observed and experienced much of that pervasive fear. Scranton, along with being second in command of state government, was titular head of Pennsylvania's State Emergency Management Agency and Chairman of the State Civil Defense Council. Ironically, Scranton, who'd only been in office for 68 days, had had several meetings already with various members of each emergency management team. When news of the crisis reached his office via Oran Henderson, the actual head of the State Emergency Management Agency, Scranton at least had the advantage of knowing which individuals to contact. In this capacity, he would prove quite valuable to his boss. Scranton also possessed a quality of familiarity and media savvy that would serve him well during the coming hectic days.
Pennsylvanians were familiar with Scrantons. The young lieutenant governor hailed from one of the state's oldest political dynasties. Bill Scranton's father had been a popular governor and a viable presidential candidate during the 1960s. His great, great grandfather had a city named after him. Young Bill had made a name for himself working on newspapers owned by his powerful family. When the accident at Three Mile Island became news, it was William Scranton, representing the Thornburgh administration, who faced the press first. During his first press conference, Scranton essentially reiterated what officials at Metropolitan Edison, the owners of Three Mile Island, had told him: "Everything is under control. There is and was no danger to public health and safety." In short order Scranton found out that everything was not under control. What was termed a small amount of radioactive iodine had, indeed, been released. Scranton later expressed frustration that he "couldn't count on anybody at Met Ed for any type of information," and spoke of how "the indignation that welled up in me was memorable" when he learned of the offsite release.
Throughout Thursday, March 29, the governor's office in Harrisburg was buffetted with often-conflicting reports concerning events at Three Mile Island. It was decided that someone should pay a visit to the Island to obtain a first-hand assessment. William Scranton volunteered. "It occurred to me, 'Someone's got to go down there and look at that place...' and being 30 years old, and maybe thinking I was more immortal than I really was, I said, 'I'm going to go down there," he later recounted. Scranton revealed a sense of forboding as he arrived at the plant, "...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." Scranton's visit was no mere photo opportunity. He asked to see the source of the radiation releases and was fitted with a protective suit. He made his way to the auxiliary building and viewed the radioactive water collected on the floor. He described it as looking "like water in your basement, except it happened to be in...a nuclear power plant. I realized that what was all around me was highly contaminated. ...I came back with a much clearer understanding of what was going on that island." Scranton's visit to Three Mile Island did not signal the end of the crisis, but it did remove some of the haunting mystery of the event for the Lieutenant Governor and those he worked with.