Monday, March 28, 2016

A Seventies Memory

The 1970s sped by, in my mind today a blur of rapidly passing images. In college at the beginning of the decade, a couple of years later I graduated and married, a typical scenario for my generation.

Hub at the time was a Navy man. We lived a short time in Charleston, South Carolina, and then Philadelphia. Re-entering the civilian world, hub accepted a job with a manufacturing company in a south central Pennsylvania town. We settled into small town life. As the decade rolled on Matthew was born, and 2-1/2 years later Jason joined the family.

We moved into our new home following a snowstorm in February, 1979. Suddenly upheaval temporarily disrupted our lives on the morning of Wednesday, March 28, 1979.

Local news began reporting a possible problem at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear reactor south of Harrisburg, PA, about 15 miles as the crow flies from our house. National outlets quickly picked up the story, and we knew something potentially bad might be happening very close to home.

TMI company spokespersons, state representatives, the governor, then federal officials held a series of news conferences, generating conflicting and confusing statements.

On Thursday the government ordered a five-mile area evacuation, and on Friday Governor Thornburgh extended the evacuation to pregnant women and small children living within a 20-mile zone around the nuclear plant. It was a recommendation, not a mandatory evacuation order.

Schools closed and officials advised everyone to remain indoors.

Confusion reigned, people unsure what to do. Hub and I packed our bags, belted the boys into their car seats and drove to my parents’ home on Long Island. We watched TV from a safe distance as President Carter and other politicians visited TMI and addressed a frightened public.

A couple of days later hub returned to TMI territory and went back to work, just down the road from TMI. 

Meanwhile three-year-old Matthew and I boarded a plane for Florida and visited my grandfather, a.k.a. Grandpa Sam, thrilled to show off his great grandson to anyone who would pay attention.


Within an hour after arriving at Grandpa Sam’s apartment Matthew needed to go to the bathroom. This would not be a normal pee or poop. Perhaps the travel and excitement of flying upset his body, or too much junk food shocked his system. Whatever the reason, his poop proved potentially prize-worthy, clogging the toilet and necessitating an emergency call to the apartment house janitor for an extra-large plunger and cleanup crew.

The calamity was not an auspicious beginning, but Grandpa Sam mellowed as Matthew’s engaging smile and antics won Great Grandpa’s heart.

Meanwhile, back in TMI country, hub walked around his factory on the Susquehanna River, properly attired and with a Geiger counter in hand, checking radiation levels.

News reports indicated the TMI accident was worse than initially realized. The nuclear reactor’s uranium core melted – not completely, but enough to cause major concern and give TMI the dubious distinction of being the worst commercial nuclear reactor accident in U.S. history.

After five days basking in the warm Florida sun, frolicking at the beach and in the pool, Matthew and I returned to New York. Jason was glad to see us, but enjoyed his time with Grandma and Grandpa.

The three of us drove home and reunited with hub. The TMI crisis officially declared over, everyone returned to normal routines.

The aftermath –

I Survived TMI T-shirts and glow-in-the-dark souvenirs appeared on store shelves.

The movie The China Syndrome, released twelve days before TMI, depicted an accident at a nuclear reactor. Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon starred. Ironically, one of the movie’s most prophetic lines was in reference to the possibility of a meltdown that could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.” Following TMI, Jane Fonda campaigned against nuclear power.

Although not solely responsible for the demise of the nuclear power industry in the U.S., the TMI crisis proved a significant factor. Some experts consider TMI one cause of climate change, the decline of the nuclear industry leading to more environmentally damaging energy alternatives.

TMI Unit 2 reactor cleanup lasted years, completed in December 1993 at a total cost of $1 billion. It is permanently shut down.

TMI Unit 1, owned today by Exelon Corporation, is operational under a license from the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) until 2034.