TMI

Even after all these years, it is still one of those life events I can recall fairly easily.

And after all these years, the event isn’t over just yet.

In August of 1978, I started attending Penn State University’s Capitol Campus (now known as Penn State-Harrisburg) in Middletown PA for my junior year of college. I was majoring in a specific degree program there for Humanities-Communications.

Capitol Campus served at that time as an alternative for juniors, seniors, and graduate students who either did not want to attend PSU’s State College PA Campus (which you know as simply Penn State), or who wanted to attain one of the specific degree programs the Capitol Campus offered. The campus (to this day) resides less than ten miles from Harrisburg, the state capitol. It is located on the site of the decommissioned Olmsted Air Force Base, of which many buildings were ready-made for becoming part of a collegiate setting when it first opened for business in 1966.

But more importantly, its location while I was there was near an Arby’s restaurant, which stayed open late night to accommodate its proximity to starving college students. A true win-win.

Wednesday March 28, 1979

Classes were set to resume the following week after the school’s spring break. I was waiting at the Harrisburg train station at 6:30 am, listening to my car radio while waiting to pick up my friend John. John had gone home to Western PA for the break, and needed someone to take him back to campus as he did not have a car at the time.

I heard the local radio DJ announce there was a “site emergency” at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant but it was under control. He read it between songs matter-of-factly much like an update on traffic or weather. It literally went in one ear and out the other.

Capitol Campus sits only about three miles from TMI, whose “smokestacks” you can easily see from several parts of the campus. Its proximity to where I going to continue my education didn’t even register in my mind when I first went to visit the campus…certainly not like that Arby’s did.

I picked up John shortly after the radio announcement and we returned to campus. I didn’t even mention it on the way back. As the day went on, periodic reports on both radio and television were now waffling a bit as to whether or not any actual radiation had gotten out, but the main takeaway continued to be everything was just fine.

Which was quite fine with those of us already back at school, because we were in full-on chill mode since the first classes were not for a few more days.

Thursday March 29, 1979

Spades is a card game of which I am told is somewhat of a “descendant” of Bridge (which I have never played). The object is to bid your hand as accurately as you can, with trump cards being from the suit of Spades.

Our dorms played a LOT of Spades that year, and when the weather favored it, we liked to drag out a folding table and chairs to play outside. We even established a Spades league and kept track of win-loss records, overall points, etc. Regardless of our card-playing venue, adult beverages often made an appearance as well, which may have impacted some performances from time to time now that I think of it.

This Spring day was perfect for enjoying the outdoors and playing some Spades. We had a blast, and thoughts of being so close to Three Mile Island were miles away. Toward evening however, when watching local television reports it seemed to me there was still some major confusion between the operators of the plant (Met Ed), the state authorities, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Federal government. There were many views as to what the actual status of the plant was.

I called my mother, asking her what she was seeing and hearing from our home just a couple hours east of Middletown. I told her we were experiencing some reporting confusion at our end. The term meltdown had started to be thrown around as what could have happened if the operators had not already gotten control of the situation. So, we all started to try to figure out what a meltdown was.  I can say those of us in the dorms started to have a few more conversations about TMI, and whether or not anyone knew the exact situation, wasn’t telling us the exact situation…a bit of suspicion and worrying had started.

Friday March 30, 1979

It was almost 11 am, and I was in class with about 30 other students. A woman came to the doorway, interrupted our class, and started to advise us the Governor had requested everyone stay in the building and close the windows.

It seemed like we arose from our desks as one, and walked right by her on our way out of the building. God bless that woman. She was just doing her job.

Most students I knew went back to the dorms and started watching television again, eventually seeing the Governor issuing an “advisory” for pregnant women and pre-school age children to evacuate within a five-mile radius of the plant, with evacuation centers to be set up. Schools were ordered to close.

Some of us by then had decided enough was enough, and if we lived close enough, we were going to go home for the weekend. There were a couple of students on our floor who were from out of state, but they decided to ride it out in the dorms. John was on the floor below me, and he decided to stick around also. I gathered up some things and left for home at around 1 pm.

Driving through Middletown to get out of town, I saw some folks outside their homes packing up their families as quickly as they could. That’s when it really hit me. As I turned onto the Interstate for the drive back, the gravity and seriousness of the situation was finally realized…from an admittedly selfish perspective at first. Would I EVER be able to go back there? What if I had to go elsewhere to continue my education? What of the friendships with those in the dorms?

And eventually, my concern widened to include everyone else involved. Heck, we only lived a couple of hours away. My thoughts turned to…would my friends and family at home even be far enough away from whatever this was?

After a weekend of sitting on pins and needles, it seemed like all the players in this saga eventually got back on the same page, and any potential disaster had been avoided. We returned to class a week or so later.

Several weeks after returning, we had a couple of residents whose farms sit within a couple miles of the plant visit one of my classes to discuss their experiences post-TMI. They indicated health issues for both their families and their livestock. Around the same time, the state of Pennsylvania and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission set up a trailer in Middletown. They invited anyone who was within three miles of the plant to be tested for radiation exposure. Since we “qualified,” five of us got together and went down to be tested. The test was simple in execution…you took off your shoes and any metallic items, and got into what I would call an eight-foot long steel-like bathtub. An arm above the tub scanned your body up and down a couple of times…and that was that. We were told we’d get our results in the mail in a few weeks.

The school year was over and I remember getting the envelope when it arrived at my home. It was a certificate from both the state and the NRC indicating the test found I had no elevated levels of radiation.

That being said, the two spaces assigned for signatures from each entity were both unsigned.

It was and continues to be my real life X-Files. A situation where I didn’t know who to believe then, and I still don’t now. There are still books being written and documentaries being made. Last week, the current owners of Three Mile Island applied to the NRC to take the “next step” towards decommissioning the reactor which failed us all back in 1979.

It has been 43 years and there is still “clean-up” to be done.

I’ll never feel sure about what the true story is regarding how bad it could have been at TMI.

Nor do I know if this story will ever end.

 

Pictures Courtesy Penn State-Harrisburg/Smithsonian Magazine

63 thoughts on “TMI”

  1. I’ve only recently heard of this via a Netflix show- possibly not a reliable source and definitely not one to take as gospel- but I’m intrigued. So many questions!

    What is your gut feeling, if you don’t mind my asking, on the trailer and the radiation exposure test? Was it genuine testing or a just an attempt to reassure the local population?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. At the time, it felt to us the testing was just provided as a reaction to the blowback from the townspeople. The media had already started to dig into all the contradictory information. The timing of announcing the testing option was not immediate. As I sit here today, I have no doubt it was just to assure the locals.

      Liked by 3 people

  2. WOW, you lived it. My German ex ( a Nuclear Chemist) was working there at the time. I’d refused to move to 3MI–one of the lesser reasons he’s an ex. I was born in Philly suburbs; living in DC burbs in 79. Maurice Chevalier is singing ‘ah yes, I remember it well…?’ More than scary that 45 years later they are taking ‘next steps,’ though not surprising. I live near Oak Ridge TN and worked on several radioactive hot decommissioning proposal projects… Wow, and many thanks for liking all the in progress chapters of Grave Goddess, the most off the wall of my creations.
    Don’t know if you’re a PA native, but after reading your off the chessboard blogs, wonder if you ever came across a guy that owned a book store near the uni, name of Ditch, 70s-80s? He set out to read and describe all his fav (weird or eclectic) books from the 1930-80s, which numbered in the 1000s on an early 90s website. I’m enjoying your reporting and observations! CHeers!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Between the ex and Oak Ridge you are very well versed in this subject! I was born and raised (and live) in Chester County PA (west of Philly). I’m actually closer to the nuclear plant in Limerick PA which is just about 45 minutes from my home. I actually remember after TMI happened the phone books started to come with a page outlining what “evacuation zone” you lived in from Limerick’s plant in the event of an “event” there. I don’t know Ditch, but if I come across him I will advise. I am also enjoying your posts, including the Grave Goddess. Cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Delaware Co origins for me, though went to school for 1 year in Chester when we moved back to PA briefly. If you’re read some of my other blogs, then yep it was interesting being married to mad scientist, er chemist (#2 of 5). We haven’t heard last of 3MI!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. When I saw the Title, I was expecting a story about “Too Much Info” not “Three Mile Island.” Hope that the bill of clean health you received back in 1979 was genuine and not bogus.

    Have you seen Silkwood (starring Cher, Kurt Russell, and Meryl Streep)? It’s a rather chilling account of radiation poisoning.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. I did see Silkwood when it first came out. Great cast, great movie. Scary subject matter indeed. I thought the post title would create that impression at first. I think it’s ironic that TMI now “stands” for too much information, whereas with this TMI we probably have gotten too little information.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. I was a brand new mother in Southern NJ. A baby just born on the 11th of March, and this happened, and I really wondered if the radiation would reach us and harm him. I remember this very well, and yes, I still don’t really know how bad it was…or what happened…exactly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It was really tough on the local residents, and I recall stories of some current and prospective parents deciding to move away. But yes, once you start hearing stories of meltdowns, being downwind from releases of radiation…everyone outside the area started to wonder if they’d be caught up in it too.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. My son is 43, no damage as far as I know. I had an uncle and aunt who lived in Chichester around that time. They also had a brand new baby boy and he is fine too. Both of these boys had healthy children.

        Liked by 2 people

  5. Great story! I just watched the Netflix “Meltdown: Three Mile Island” documentary a few months ago and found the whole thing fascinating. As you say, it’s next to impossible to know who to believe…but the fact that Jimmy Carter went there in person and is still alive and kicking makes me think maybe the whole thing was overblown? Who knows.

    In any case, thanks for sharing your fascinating firsthand experience!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Aside from seeing the current TMI operators want permission to take the next step in clean-up, I also have seen those headlines about war in the vicinity of the plant in the Ukraine. It sounds like it is only a matter of time before that becomes the next nuclear nightmare.

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  6. Wow! So much sketchiness around all the goings on. I assume you have never been contacted since, been offered further testing…anything? I’ve not watched the Netflix doc that Mark mentions, but now I want to. I’ve seen things on Chernobyl which were terrifying, both in the actual events and results but also in how easy it seems to downplay/ignore the severity by those in charge.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No, no one I know of who was tested right after the incident was ever followed-up with. I have not seen the Netflix documentary, but am curious as to what they have put together. When Chernobyl happened, it definitely brought to mind the possibility TMI was “kept quiet” as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Frank, it certainly did. Without arguing with anyone about the likelihood of an accident ever happening again at a nuclear power plant, this real-life event made me realize the potential for disaster doesn’t warrant taking further chances on nuclear energy, no matter how safe it is represented to be.

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  7. Now this is your real-life, close-up look at WHAT THE HECK SHOULD WE DO NOW, Bruce. I’m here wishing now that nobody close to TMI got sick or worse in the resulting years. Thanks for your compelling style of retelling your version.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Interesting: when TMI meant something totally different–should be TLI: too little information from the government. I was in high school in ’79 and TMI seemed a world away (guess I didn’t look at maps much :)), but it was just over 300 miles from my hometown in CT. Thank you for this reminder. The unsigned form is jarring! Have long-term health screenings of the residents been done?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I never heard of any government-related effort, but the academic and medical communities have done several studies of cases post-TMI to see if any conditions or deaths might have connections. Not screenings, but tracking the long-term health histories of those nearby. As with everything else regarding TMI, drawing any conclusions is just speculative.

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    1. Yes, even when I got out of Middletown and arrived at home there was real concern because the conversation was now about who was “down wind” from the facility. Those in my home area were almost as worried as those nearby the plant.

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  9. Interesting experience, and a rather unsettling one at that. I lived in a town that was evacuated because of cloudy chemical fumes from a train derailment and that was scary, but what you experienced is on the verge of horrific.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Just by the title TMI, I thought the post was to be something about too much information. Three Mile Island never even crossed my mind. Wow, what a scary situation. Glad to hear you scanned radiation free. Still a bit scary that so many years later there’s more going on there.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Whenever I read about some revelatory event, I always consider how much of it remains buried. Because let’s face it, as consumers of information, we’re tended to rather than taken care of. For our own safety and well being . . . uh, of course . . .

        Liked by 1 person

  11. We lived in Pennsylvania back then, and I remember TMI well. We didn’t know anyone as close to TMI as you, and the news back then was not scary- I mean it was the Walter Cronkite years, not today’s news that resembles ’60 Minutes’. For someone who was there, this would be a moment you would never forget.

    Liked by 1 person

  12. I don’t know what is more disconcerting – the confusion info that was related or the nonchalance about cleaning it up still today. And no, I don’t think there should be any residential areas within many more miles of these things.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. I was a kid when this happened, but I i think you’re right. I don’t think we ever got the “true” story on what happened. Funny, because later on TMI came too mean “too much informatoin.” That certainly was not the case here.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. A very interesting account. I remember when this happened! I was living in Virginia at the time, but my sister and family lived in Akron, PA which was not far away from TMI. It was a very unsettling time for a while. Glad you were not unduly affected. It is probably good you went home for a while.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. What a terrifying story, Bruce. I see myself reacting similarly. Not properly grasping the gravity of it all at first until all the questions about life, family, and friends start pouring into my mind. Thank you for sharing this with us. You have quite a vivid writing style. I felt like I too went through all that…

    Liked by 1 person

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