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Meltdown at Three Mile Island | Article

Pennsylvania Mayor Reid and Lt. Governor Scranton

Three mile_reid.jpg
Mayor Robert Reid

Mayor Robert Reid
Prior to March 28, 1979, Middletown, Pennsylvania mayor Robert Reid considered the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island to be a blessing to his small town of 11,000 citizens. Millions of dollars had been poured into Middletown's economy during the plant's construction, and many residents collected their weekly paycheck from the plant. Three Mile Island took its place beside Bethlehem Steel and Fruehauf Trailer Factory in providing jobs and a measure of middle-class prosperity to the people of Middletown. In 1979, Robert Reid had lived all of his 46 years in Middletown. He'd made a name for himself as a star fullback for the Middletown High School Blue Raiders. While serving as mayor he continued to teach a course in American Government at that same high school. Hard-working and feisty, Reid maintained the physique that made him a boxing champ in college. He was also, in 1979, the only African American mayor in Pennsylvania. 

Reid took his job as mayor seriously. He was interested in the lives and well-being of the people of Middletown. Three nights a week he would ride along in the patrol car of a policeman friend, Earl Anderson, making his presence known on Middletown's streets. Reid went to work on Wednesday, March 28, having no knowledge that a crisis had been unfolding at Three Mile Island. Midway through his first class of the day, Middletown's Civil Defense director, Butch Ryan, informed Reid that something was up at TMI. When he reached his office in the town municipal building, located less than 6,000 yards from Three Mile Island, the first challenge Reid faced was obtaining accurate information. "All that I learned when I got to the office was that there had been an on-site emergency declared," Reid recalled for writer Mark Stephens. "So we sat there and we listened to the television. We changed from channel to channel, and each channel gave us different information." 

Reid would need as much accurate information as he could gather over the coming days in order to prepare for a possible evacuation of Middletown. At the time of the Three Mile Island accident, Middletown had no formal emergency evacuation plans in place, and Reid, like other state and federal officials, was growing frustrated with Met Ed. "I was angry from that Wednesday," Reid recalled. "I was upset with the way things were being handled and the way we were lied to." When Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh's office recommended a limited evacuation, Reid had his hands full. He recalled, "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.' ...Things were starting to get a little hectic." As he tried to calm the frayed nerves of Middletown citizens, Reid also had to take measures to make sure no one took advantage of the disruption. 

Lieutenant Governor​​​​​​​ William Scranton 
"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.

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