Three Mile Island 30th Anniversary Reflections

The 30th anniversary on March 28, 2009 of the near-meltdown at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Middletown, Pennsylvania has triggered a bunch of memories, not only of our family’s experience but also of some of the issues that were so real 30 years ago and which, if you ask me, have never really gone away.

When the first news reports started coming out about an “accident” at TMI, we didn’t take them too seriously, partly because at first they didn’t sound too alarming. Our children were 5 1/2 years old and 7 months. Our daughter was in pre-kindergarten in Harrisburg, and we continued to send her to school and let her to play outside, not thinking there was any reason to disrupt her routine. A neighbor scolded me for allowing her to play outside, and at first I thought she was over-reacting and then I began to worry that perhaps the accident was a bigger deal than we originally thought. Very soon, of course, news reports became much more ominous, and evacuation recommendations were issued for pregnant women and children within a 5-mile radius of TMI, and additional recommendations to stay indoors for those within a 10-mile radius. We lived just outside the 10-mile radius (probably at about 11.5 miles), but we were close enough to begin to think seriously about whether or not we should leave the area.

My husband and I debated for several days, all the while being only too aware that if a meltdown or partial meltdown actually occurred, the disaster would be horrific and almost unimaginable. About a week after the accident, we finally decided to leave (probably after whatever damage there might have been was already done!). With no close relatives far enough way, we fled to my best friend’s home in Indiana where we stayed for a week before deciding it was safe to return home. We took family photos and other important papers along with us, in case we wouldn’t be able to return. While our decision to leave was probably made too late, we nonetheless felt better and like we were being responsible parents.

Even after we returned home, my husband and I and our friends repeatedly discussed a number of issues, and we’re not sure anything has changed a whole lot in 30 years. The same questions still persist:

1. Can we ever really be prepared for massive evacuations? At the time of the accident we talked a lot about how awful it would be if everyone tried to leave the city of Harrisburg at one time: crowded highways, panicked people, disabled vehicles, etc. I don’t think we are any better prepared now than we were 30 years ago.

2. Can we trust our government and other public officials to tell us the truth? Even though no deaths or serious illnesses have ever been officially attributed to the TMI accident, you will never convince some people that there were no serious lingering effects from the accident. Despite repeated assurances that not enough radiation was released to do any harm, many people still have lingering doubts that they were or are being told the whole truth. I remember in the years immediately following the accident that we often made TMI the scapegoat for whatever illnesses might have been going around, and who knows whether or not there might have been a connection. By now, I am inclined to believe the official version, but I still harbor a healthy suspicion about the complete trustworthiness of government officials for whom it is in their best interests to cast reality in the best possible light.

3. How safe is nuclear power, really? First of all, there’s the issue of nuclear waste, which I’m not sure has ever been resolved satisfactorily. Second, will it ever be possible to guarantee that a nuclear power plant will not have a meltdown? Certainly when Chernobyl happened in 1986, less than 10 years after TMI, we who had lived through TMI were reminded all over again of the potential for disaster.

4. Whatever happened to the idea that nuclear power would create electricity that is “too cheap to meter”? Probably most people have long ago given up on that idea, but it’s worth remembering the slogan as a major selling point for a technology that had serious safety concerns. Perhaps many of the safety concerns of nuclear power have been addressed in the years since TMI, but we certainly don’t have cheap electricity!!

While our family’s experience was not nearly as traumatic as those who lived closer to TMI, every anniversary of the accident reminds me of what tense and uncertain times those were in the spring of 1979. When I fly into Harrisburg International Airport and see those cooling towers, including the disabled one from the accident, I always have that momentary chill in the pit of my stomach remembering what it was like that March.

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