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Meltdown at Three Mile Island | Article

President Carter

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President Jimmy Carter

President Jimmy Carter
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. 

Harold Denton
Harold Denton, director of the Division of Nuclear Reactor Regulation at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was President Carter's personal representative to Harrisburg "for the duration of the problem" at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The arrival of Denton seemed to immediately calm the frayed nerves of public officials and stem the anger of a frustrated press corps. Reporter Steve Liddick of WCMB radio explained to writer Mark Stephens that "Harold Denton was trusted because he looked like a regular, down-to-earth kind of guy. And people wanted someone to believe." 

Denton's job was far from easy. It fell to him to inform Thornburgh and Carter about a possibly explosive hydrogen bubble discovered above the cooling water, at the top of the reactor pressure vessel. That bubble-and whether or not it would mix with oxygen and set off a devastating explosion -- proved to be the source of intense debate, and fueled nightmarish images of a meltdown. 

At the time of Carter's arrival on Sunday morning, April 1, the question as to whether the bubble would explode was still under debate. Denton informed the president of the risk just as he was preparing to enter the plant. "...I briefed the president 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 single view on that," Denton remembered. 

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