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Meltdown at Three Mile Island poster image
Aired February 22, 1999

Meltdown at Three Mile Island

Film Description

It was never supposed to happen. In the predawn hours of March 28, 1979, a pressure valve suddenly malfunctioned at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. What occured next--a combination of technical failure, human error, and bad luck--would result in the worst nuclear accident in American history. For five nerve-wracking days, engineers struggled to control a runaway reactor, government officials debated whether to evacuate the area, and residents contemplated the ultimate horror of a nuclear meltdown.

Meltdown at Three Mile Island carefully re-examines step-by-step this national disaster which still haunts many Americans, and which dealt a crippling blow to the nation's nuclear power industry. Meltdown at Three Mile Island is produced by Chana Gazit (Surviving the Dust Bowl and Chicago 1968) and David Steward, and narrated by Liev Schreiber.

For nearly a year the nuclear plant had been quietly generating electricity in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Located just ten miles from the state capital of Harrisburg, Three Mile Island was within 100 miles of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. People in the surrounding communities had grown accustomed to the concrete fortress with its giant cooling towers. "I was just amazed, wide-eyed looking at the thing, and it was just neat," says Mike Pintek, a local resident and journalist. "It was high technology and this was going to be power that was too cheap to meter."

The accident started at the plant's Unit 2 reactor when a small valve failed to close, causing cooling water to drain from the nuclear core. The core quickly began to overheat. Confronted by baffling and contradictory information, plant operators shut off the emergency water system that would have cooled the core. Within minutes, the mammoth control console was "lit up like a Christmas tree," one operator recalls. Hundreds of flashing lights were accompanied by piercing horns and sirens. 

By early morning Wednesday, March 28, the exposed part of the core was beginning to cook as temperatures in the reactor reached 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit--dangerously close to meltdown. Yet operators remained convinced that the core was covered and safe. "We had a mindset that said we had these marvelous safety systems which had back-ups of back-ups," says Bob Long, a supervising engineer at Three Mile Island. "It was hard for people to really come to grips with the reality that severe damage had occurred."

But when contaminated water leaked into an adjoining building and started to release radioactive gases inside the plant, Three Mile Island's supervisor declared the first general emergency ever to arise at a nuclear power plant in the United States. 

Word of the accident first reached the public in a radio report. Lieutenant Governor William Scranton assured everyone that the owner of the plant, Metropolitan Edison, had the situation under control, and no radiation had been released outside the plant. As Scranton left the podium, he learned that a release had in fact occurred; he had been misled. "It was at that point I realized," says Scranton, "that we could not rely on Metropolitan Edison for the kind of information we needed to make decisions." 

Frightened residents didn't know whom to believe either. Just days earlier, Hollywood had released The China Syndrome, a film about a potential meltdown at a nuclear power plant. In it, an area the size of Pennsylvania is threatened with annihilation. For residents, life was now imitating art. "My sister called from LA," remembers Robin Stuart, "saying `Get out, hurry up and get out.'" More than 500,000 people now faced a decision: pack up and evacuate the area, or stay and stick it out.

The evacuation plans that Governor Dick Thornburgh had inherited were almost useless; one would have sent residents of two counties racing toward each other across a bridge. Thornburgh feared setting off public hysteria, but by Friday, March 30, he felt he had no choice but to advise pregnant women and school-age children to leave the area. His announcement unleashed a wave of panic as residents tossed a few belongings into their cars and sped off. More than 140,000 would eventually flee.

Friday also brought a new, more terrifying revelation: a hydrogen bubble had formed above the reactor core. Over the weekend, scientists from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission argued about whether the bubble might explode at any minute. Now even the journalists covering the story were on the verge of hysteria. During Sunday Mass, one Roman Catholic priest offered general absolution. "This is a sacrament reserved when death is imminent," recalls Victor Stello, a senior NRC engineer who was in the congregation. "What we had done to these people was just outrageous. We had frightened them so bad, they thought they were going to die." 

A few hours later, President Jimmy Carter arrived. As his motorcade made its way to Three Mile Island, emotionally drained residents lined the street. "They stood there and cheered," relates journalist Mike Gray, "because he was with them."

Carter's visit would mark the end of the crisis. That afternoon, scientists finally determined that the hydrogen bubble posed no immediate threat, and that the reactor core had stabilized. Gradually, residents began returning 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. 

Three years after the accident, a robotic camera was lowered into the Unit 2 core, providing the first look at what really had happened. Roger Mattson, a senior NRC engineer, describes what was revealed: "We had a meltdown at Three Mile Island. Fifty percent of the core was destroyed or molten and something on the order of twenty tons of uranium found its way to the bottom head of the pressure vessel. That's a core meltdown. No question about it."


Produced & Written by
Chana Gazit

Coproduced & Edited by
David Steward

Music by
Todd Boekelheide

Narrated by
Liev Schreiber

Creative Consultant
Paul Taylor

Joel Shapiro

Aerial Cinematography
Allan Palmer

William Kastenberg
Daniel Martin
Charles Perrow

Associate Producers
Marilyn Ness
Megan Lukas

Archival Research
Laura Ozment-Schenck
Joy Conley

Post-Production Coordinator
Stacey Barnett

Additional Cinematography
Michael Lomma
David Steward
Terry Hopkins

Sound Recording
Bernard Russo

George Winchell
Douglas Wallick

Assistant Camera
William McCullough

Additional Sound
Michael Allen
Edward O'Connor

Assistant Editor
David Baum

Re-enactment locations provided by
Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station

Re-recording Mixer
Michael Ruschak
Sync Sound

Jim Dalglish
Tape House

Motion Effects
Russell Steward
Immediate Image

Frank Ferrigno
Unitel Video

Video Post-Production
Alvin Bowens
Frame:runner, Inc.

Audio Post-Production
Tony Slocum
Sync Sound

Production Assistants
Amy Brown
Kristina Cafarella
Shala Zagone
Leonard Clarke

Kelley A. Trotter

Interview Locations
Dumbarton House
Harris-Cameron Mansion
Merchant's House Museum
Robin and Jeb Stuart Residence

Archival Film & Audio Provided by
ABC News Videosource
AIS, University of Pittsburgh
Jim Buchanan
CBS News Archives 
Dame Media, Inc.
Film/Audio Serivces, Inc.
GPU Nuclear
Hot Shots/Cool Cuts
Jimmy Carter Library
National Archives
NBC News Archives
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
WQED Pittsburgh

Archival Photos Provided by
AP/Wide World Photos
Joseph Fouchard
GPU Nuclear
Historical Society of Dauphin County
Jimmy Carter Library
National Archives
Pennsylvania State Archives
Robin Neenan Stuart
U.S. Department of Energy

Special Thanks to
Laura Karinch
Georg Sheets
Maya Steward
Betty Gazit


Frank Capria
Maureen Barden

James Dunford

William B. McCullough
Merce Williams
Chas Norton
Tom Doran

Alison Kennedy
Chris Pullman

Lizard Lounge Graphics, Inc.

Mark Steele

Charles Kuskin

Michael Bacon

Christine Larson

Nancy Farrell
Helen R. Russell

Danielle Dell'Olio

Daphne B. Noyes 
Johanna Baker

Susan Mottau

Joseph Tovares

Mark Samels

Margaret Drain

A Steward/Gazit Productions, Inc. film
for The American Experience
©1999 WGBH Educational Foundation
All rights reserved


Hello, I'm David McCullough. Welcome to The American Experience.

Fear of powerful forces let loose by amazing machines and amazing science is an old story in American life, from as far back as the days of steam.

You remember the scene in Huckleberry Finn. It's night on a river and suddenly a steam boat bursts out of the dark and the fog, bearing down on Huck and Jim on their raft.

"...and all of a sudden she bulged out, big and scary, with a long row of wide open furnace doors shining like red-hot teeth, and her monstrous bows and guards hanging right over us. There was a yell at us, and a jingling of bells to stop the engines, a pow-wow of cussing, and whistling steam -- and as Jim went overboard on one side, and I on the other, she came smashing straight through the raft."

Our film is about another moment of terror on another American river, in our own atomic age. The year was 1979. Yet here again were furnaces "big and scary," but they were nuclear. And again there was a very big "pow-wow of cussing," but this time among citizens, scientists, and officials.

This was reality, of course. And as word spread, the terror was felt everywhere. Even after so many years, the thought of what could have happened is enough to stop the heart.

Many of us remember where and when we heard the first bulletins from Three Mile Island. Though far away, I felt particularly connected.

Our oldest son was in college in Pennsylvania, less than a hundred miles down-wind from the site. And the governor of the state, Dick Thornburgh, was an old friend from boyhood.

I tried to imagine what it was like for him, with all those lives at stake.

Meltdown at Three Mile Island...

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.

Mike Pintek, Reporter
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 other day. 

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 overheat.

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.

Mike Gray, Writer
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 anyway.

Mike Gray
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." 

Jim Higgins, 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. 

Bob Long, Supervising Engineer
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". 

Mike Gray, Writer
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. 

Bob Long, Supervising Engineer
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 occurred. 

As the operators struggled to make sense of the accident, workers throughout the plant flocked to the control room.

Mike Gray, Writer
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 runaway reactor.

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.

Mike Pintek
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 Mile Island. 

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. 

Dick Thornburgh
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. 

William Scranton, Lt. Governor
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. 

"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 been misplaced. 

William Scranton
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. 

"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...."

Gene Schenck, Reporter
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. 

"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....)

Gene Schenck
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. 

Robert Reid
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. 

Robert Reid
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 expert." 

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 answers?"
Reid: "I think we will get better answers."

Robert Reid
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 to. 

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. 

Jim Higgins
NRC Inspector
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 saw. 

Jim Higgins
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 respirators. 

Mike Gray
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. 

Jim Higgins
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 information through. 

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. 

"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. 

Mike Gray
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. 

WALTER CRONKITE: 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 nuclear engineer, 
he knew 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.

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."

Harold Denton, NRC Oficial
... 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.

Gene Schenck
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. 

Harold Denton
NRC Official
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. 

Harold Denton
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. 

Mike Gray, Writer
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. 

Mike Gray
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 Susquehanna.

Peter Bradford, NRC Commissioner
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. 

William Scranton
Lt. Governor
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 there." 

William Scranton
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 dangerous. 

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.

William Scranton
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 that island.

"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 feel fine."

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. 

Dick Thornburgh
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 evacuation?"

Thornburgh feared the prospect of a mass exodus. Earlier, he had directed an aide to review the state's emergency plans.

Dick Thornburgh
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 Harrisburg.

Dick Thornburgh
..... 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 of emergency declared on Three Mile Island. Please stay indoors with your windows 

For residents, life seemed to be imitating art. 

Just twelve days earlier, a Hollywood film called The China Syndrome had 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, Resident
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. 

Marsha Mchenry, Resident
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

Mike Gray, Writer
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. 

"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."

Mike Pintek, Reporter
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..."

Mike Gray, Writer
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 vicious. 

Now I am here today to try and ease the level of panic and concern. And tell you that, tell you ...

Mike Pintek
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.

"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 
further notice."

Thornburgh's announcement unleashed the panic he had been trying to avoid. Within days, 140,000 people would flee the area. 

Robert Reid
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. 

Marsha McHenry
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: "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 hotline unassembled."

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. 

Harold Denton
NRC Official 
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.

William Scranton
Lt. Governor 
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.

Mike Pintek
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.

"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 headquarters.

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:

Roger Mattson, 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 "horse race."

"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."

Roger Mattson
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.

Walter Cronkite:
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 .......

Mike Pintek
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 explosion. 

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. 

William Scranton
Lt. Governor
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. 

Dan Martin
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 insiders.

Harold Denton
NRC Official
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 proved right. 

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. 

Mike Gray
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 out?"

Mike Pintek
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's word.

Denton: We see no possibility of hydrogen explosions in either the containment or the reactor vessel in the near term. 

William Scranton
Lt. Governor 
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: "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: 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 quarters.

Harold Denton
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. 

Dan Martin
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. 

Victor Stello, 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 general absolution. 

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 absolution."

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. 

Victor Stello
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 arrived. 

At the airport, he found Denton and Stello waiting to greet the President's helicopter. 

Mike Gray
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.

Harold Denton
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. 

Dan Martin
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. 

Mike Gray
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. 

Dick Thornburgh
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 Mattson's calculations. 

Dan Martin
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.

Harold Denton
NRC Official 
.... 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 exposures.

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.

Dick Thornburgh 
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. 

Bob Long
Supervising Engineer
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.

Roger Mattson
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.