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Tomorrow's disaster at
Three Mile Island
'This scenario is not as fictitious as some readers might believe ...'
by Larry Arnold
Editor's note -- This fictional scenario piece first appeared in Harrisburg Magazine's August 1978 issue, some eight months before the actual meltdown on Three Mile Island on March 28, 1979. After this article was published, Met-Ed, the owner of TMI, sought a congressional investigation of our community magazine and almost succeeded in running us out of business.
Posted April 4, 2011 -- Early Thursday afternoon, 21 December 1978 -- four days before Christmas, Mrs. Johnston, baking cookies and pies for the upcoming festivities, glanced up at the snow which had been falling with increasing intensity since shortly after the schools opened on this last day before holiday recess. The weather bureau had predicted a high-pressure zone off New Jersey would create a southeast flow that would pull in cold air from eastern Virginia and the Chesapeake Bay, and the three-inch blanket of snow testified to their accuracy.
Cover from the August 1978 issue of Harrisburg Magazine, predicting a meltodwn at TMI eight months before the fact. The cover artwork and the illustration above were drawn by staff artist Howard McKamey. Cick on the magazine cover to here to enlarge.
"The kids will have a white Christmas this year," she mused, noticing that sleet was beginning to mingle with the glistening flakes. "It will be a beautiful Christmas," she thought, turning on the radio to hear if Middletown High and Londonderry Elementary would dismiss early. She was worried that her husband, a school bus driver and volunteer fireman who was in Harrisburg at the moment, might not be notified in time to return and pick up his and 38 other children.
Two miles to the west, in the middle of the Susquehanna River, things weren't so tranquil. In fact, they were literally alarming. Warning bells continued to ring, as they had done since 11:43 that morning. Red panel lights flickered, then went out. Sweat beads cascaded over furrowed temples tensed from worry and fear. Thoughts of yuletide cheer were far from the minds of the men at Three Mile Island Unit 2 -- they had a crisis that was developing rapidly towards a catastrophe.
Ever since March 28, 1978, when Unit 2 became radioactive, problems had plagued the facility, including an automatic shutdown --"Scram" in nuclear parlance -- when excessive vibrations were detected. No need for concern, announced Metropolitan Edison; no need to test the effectiveness of warning and evacuation plans, save for an occasional pre-scheduled phone call to Dauphin County Civil Defense. After all, nuclear reactors were fail-safe.
That claim was now being tested at TMI.
Unit 2 had just reached its full generating capacity (959 megawatts) the day before, and now gauges were revealing abnormal thermal fluctuations in the core. No one knew exactly what was happening, because direct observation inside this earth-based stellar furnace was impossible. There were endless possibilities. "Fuel redistribution" (a shift in the critically spaced fuel rods) and cracks in the main primary coolant system had previously occurred at other nuclear plants, killing workmen and forcing decommissioning. The more than 200 dials, gauges and panel warning lights in Control Room 2 presented a maze of data demanding attention; yet after two hours the cause of the problem was still unknown.
However, it was clear the reactor was approaching a chain-reaction runaway. The impulse was to scram Unit 2 immediately. Meticulous training had taught the on-the-line chief of operation that such a move might create thermal shock, in both the blazing hot core and the channels that carried the vital pressurized coolant which tamed the uranium's heat. Caution was required at this point.
Auxiliary pumps were started to circulate more heat-carrying water through the reactor vessel. The fission reaction didn't abate. No one notified authorities outside the facility; it was still a "hush-hush" situation.
At 1:57 p.m. the decision was no longer avoidable. "SCRAM THE REACTOR!" What would happen now? For all their training and theories, the nuclear engineers and technicians in Control Room 2 crossed their fingers. Some began to pray.
The control-rod assemblies all dropped into place among the 177 uranium dioxide enriched fuel clusters -- except two. They stopped eight inches from the full "down" position. Excessive heat had warped control rods in other reactors. Was this the case here? Or had a pot-smoking construction worker's "high" caused oversight and the failure of critical equipment at a critical moment?
The reason didn't matter. What did matter was that the rods wouldn't lower and the nuclear reaction couldn't be stopped. In a situation where half-a-second has meant the difference between fuel control and fuel melting, 10 seconds had already elapsed.
A second manual scram signal was triggered. The stubborn rods didn't budge. The meaning was ominously clear -- Control Room 2 was sitting next to a runaway reactor. Meltdown was imminent. The dreaded Class IX incident, considered impossible and thus publicly ignored by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was in progress.
Met-Ed personnel were alerted to prepare for the inevitable. The Control Room supervisor, following emergency drill procedures, dialed 911 -- and prayed that snow-related emergencies had not jammed the line. It took two tries.
"This is TMI-2," he said firmly, without emotion. "We've got a Class IX ... "
The radio in Mrs. Johnston's kitchen went silent. Then a voice began, 'we interrupt for a special announcement. To the people of Londonderry Township, Royalton, and Middletown, you are informed that ... "
The radio went silent again. This time the lights went out as well. Mrs. Johnston looked out the north kitchen window. The snow had ceased, though light sleet still fell. Royalton was dark, though adjacent Middletown still shone through the icy air.
"Probably a car accident sheered off a transformer pole, or ice snapped a wire," she thought. Londonderry Fire Department's siren began to wail. "Must be an accident," she concluded. "I hope the volunteers can hear it. In this breeze that siren's blare is often carried over the community when it's windy. Suppose the announcement was about the schools dismissing early ... "
At TMI, concerns weren't dismissed so nonchalantly.
As a precaution, Unit 1 was scrammed without incident, thus assuring the impending disaster wouldn't be twice as bad. Security and emergency personnel stationed themselves at the North Gate to await the arrival of Londonderry firemen. They were to have been notified individually by telephone after their chief received a phone call from the Dauphin County Civil Defense Director, who in turn had to receive notification from the County Emergency Dispatch Center (911 operator). In drills under ideal conditions the response time averaged 3.5 minutes.
In a situation were seconds were critical to survival, seven minutes elapsed before volunteer fireman Goho, who lived nearby and was listening to his emergency monitor, arrived at the North Gate. Not only was driving treacherous, he told nervous TMI officials, but traffic was already immobile on a major egress route -- narrow Geyers Church Road.
Persons who heard the announcement over local radio station WHP -- the first media station in Harrisburg to receive emergency reports about TMI -- had already panicked. Trying to escape the runaway reactor meant going north for most people -- even though that was the direction the radiation would be carried by the prevailing wind. (Emergency planning for TMI had insisted on an east-tending wind.)
Other complications arose. Middletown's Fire Marshal Blessing and several firemen from the area were on Capitol Hill lobbying for better emergency preparedness funding. Weather conditions and the increasing flow of northbound traffic virtually cut then off from the area they were both qualified and assigned to help.
Fire Chief Weaver began contacting firemen in the Royalton area by phone, meeting with mediocre success for a weekday afternoon, until the phone system itself broke down under the huge volume of calls among frightened residents.
The public didn't know what to do.
Some people refused to leave, relying on past assurances that TMI posed no threat to them. The rescue truck and crew from Middletown assigned primary responsibility for evacuation was at the scene of the electric-pole accident. The nearest available rescue vehicles were in Lower Swatara Township, Highspire, Hershey, and Hummelstown -- an hour away. No one knew how to reach all the invalids and shut-ins.
Officials at TMI, having already cost evacuation teams several precious hours, thought -- hoped -- several more hours might yet remain before the core would melt its way out of containment and release its lethal radioactivity.
All hopes, all projections were suddenly dashed.
Whatever had jammed the control-rod assemblies seemed to be affecting the primary cooling loops, which carried 600 degree, 2155-psi water through the reactor vessel. Pressure in the loops was decreasing, allowing the water to boil in this superheated chamber. Finally there was a rupture, spraying water and debris throughout the vessel. Fuel rods bent against one another, magnifying the rate of fission. Then a series of violent steam explosions far exceeding design limits breached the reactor's containment capacity and allowed immediate release of radiation with no warning.
The reactor at TMI-2 expanded to include the outside world. A Gaussian plume released colorless, odorless, tasteless radioactive destruction into the wind. Free of the reactor's containment, billions of particles of Strontium-90 (which concentrates in the human skeleton), Iodine-131 (which affects thyroid and salivary glands and concentrates in milk), Cesium-137, and Plutonium-239 (of which 130,000,000th of an ounce is capable of causing cancer if inhaled) began settling on the landscape -- cows, homes, grass, trees, people. The 8-mph breeze and 1,000-foot-overcast ceiling funneled the radioactive plague northward.
Making matters worse, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Resource's Bureau of Radiological Health, responsible for monitoring radiation releases in the environment, had no plume flow patterns available to determine which areas north of TMI could offer the best temporary protection.
The neatly typed, 41-page "Emergency Plan for Emergency Personnel in 'Communities near the' Three Mile Island Facilities" -- never given wide distribution and tested only by imagination -- was worthless. Facing the wind and the plume, Royalton, Middletown, Highspire, Steelton, Harrisburg and beyond stood like crops before the reaper. There was no escape.
Disbelief, terror, confusion and, above all, helplessness prevailed.
A State Police helicopter crashed on the Capitol grounds as it attempted to evacuate the Governor. Legislators vied with bankers, clerks, Santa Clauses, and Christmas shoppers in Harristown for space on taxis and buses -- all of which could go nowhere in the snarled traffic. Amtrak could have rescued some, had a train been in the station at 2:20 p.m.
Had there been a realistic emergency plan for TMI, taught to the public and tested in practice --. Had the Nuclear Regulatory Commissioners not accepted indifferently the ludicrous and excessively qualified statements (and lies) of personnel responsible for public safety, and heeded instead the commonsense pleas by those who pointed out fallacy after fallacy in the licensing hearing --. Had the public been notified immediately (for the first time in the history of the industry) of a potential disaster at TMI-2, the Christmas of 1978 would never have achieved its infamy as the time of the worst single catastrophe ever brought upon people by themselves:
No other form of electric generation could have unleashed such tremendous destruction, and the risk was now -- finally -- considered too great. Nuclear facilities were ordered closed, throughout America and abroad. That decision came too late for central Pennsylvania, which would continue to pay dearly through radiation-caused cancers, genetic defects from damaged chromosomes, and lingering exposure to low-level residual radiation.
Writer Larry Arnold at TMI protest in 1979, some months after the predictions in this article came true ...
An updated version of the AEC/Brookhaven WASH-740 study (known as the Rasmussen Report, or WASH-1400) which the government labeled "Official Use Only" and tried to quash, estimated that if a nuclear reactor's containment was breached 27,000 people would-die; 73,000 people would be injured; and property damage would total a staggering $17 billion. And these figures presume that 90 percent of the population would be evacuated from an irradiated area the "size of Pennsylvania." Deaths would occur 75 miles from the reactor, said Bookhaven scientists, with damage extending far beyond. To decontaminate a 100-square-mile irradiated area (excluding the central 31 square miles) would require, according to Rasmussen's conservative calculations, $6.2 billion and a few months -unless the entire region was quarantined for years.
In Dauphin, County 15,000 people live within a five-mile radius of TMI. One hundred thousand to 200,000 people live within a 15-mile radius of Three Mile Island -- including parts of Cumberland, Lancaster, York and most of Dauphin counties. Given ideal conditions, including total familiarity of the population with evacuation procedures and drills -- a situation which meets virulent opposition from nuclear proponents and many Civil Defense personnel who themselves are unfamiliar with Class IX procedures -- an orderly and swift egress seems unlikely. Consider what North Front Street in Harrisburg is like at 4:55 on a Friday afternoon.
This scenario is not as fictitious as some readers might believe.
Repeatedly -- at Chalk River, Ontario (1952 and 1958); Windscale, England (1957), Enrico Fermi-1, outside Detroit (1966), Brown's Ferry-1 & 2 in Alabama (1975) -- nuclear technology that was publicly characterized as fail-safe failed. Surrounding populations faced with imminent radioactive catastrophe learned of their plights days or months later.
Still the official stance from industry and government was (and is) that "nuclear energy is safe," and that "there is nothing to worry about."
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