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