The Harrisburg Syndrome

Catherine Fox April 9 1979

The Harrisburg Syndrome

Catherine Fox April 9 1979

The Harrisburg Syndrome


In the latest Hollywood disaster thriller, The China Syndrome, a disintegrating nuclear reactor threatens to burn a hole through the earth’s core. That was not quite what happened at the Metropolitan Edison’s Three Mile Island nuclear power station, a mere 15 miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital, last week. But the reality was bad enough. After two days of conflicting views about the quantity and lethal qualities of a “controlled” radioactive emission from the plant, where one of two reactors had overheated, a series of “uncontrolled” emissions on Friday was followed by an official admission that there was a remote possibility of a melt-down of the damaged reactor’s core—the next worst thing to a nuclear explosion.

By the weekend, tens of thousands of the million or so residents within a 10mile radius of the plant were obeying

state Governor Dick Thornburgh’s call to stay indoors until further notice. Many others, not just the pregnant women and pre-school children within a five-mile radius (to whom it was directed), were heeding his advice to pack up and leave. Gas stations were jammed as families filled up and headed out. They could scarcely be blamed. A Metropolitan Edison spokesman was forecasting up to five more days of emissions and, while there was no question of immediate injury because radiation levels were far too low, some scientists were concerned about the long-term carcinogenic effects of exposure to the fallout (see box overleaf).

So shops and businesses closed and parents hurried to collect their children from the 23 neighborhood schools ordered shut by the governor. “This stuff ain’t nothing to play with,” said Don Fletcher, 21, as he fetched his brother from a school not far from the plant. A curfew was imposed in two nearby townships, 15 mass-care centres were set up outside the evacuation area and a

direct telephone hotline was set up between President Jimmy Carter, in the White House, and Thornburgh’s office in Harrisburg.

All was going as usual at 4 a.m. on Wednesday at the Three Mile Island plant, on the Susquehanna River. Reactor No. 1 wasn’t in operation because it was being refueled. But Reactor No. 2 was running at 97 per cent of full power when a mechanical failure occurred, stopping the flow of water which cools the reactor’s nuclear core. For as yet unknown reasons, the backup water pump also failed.

When the two pumps failed, pressure and heat built up in the cooling system and a valve sprang open automatically, pouring steam and hot water into a holding tank. The valve also malfunctioned. The water didn’t shut off and 100,000 gallons of radioactive water soon were spilled on the floor of the plant’s containment building.

An emergency cooling system went into action, pouring water over the nuclear fuel. One of the 60 employees on duty—no one knows who—turned that system off and no one knows why, or for how long. At that point some of the

highly radioactive fuel rods melted, adding more nuclear material to the overflowing water and increasing the risk of dangerous emissions from the plant.

The emergency cooling system was finally reactivated and the contaminated water was pumped to an auxiliary building. At that point the plant employees were not aware that the water was dangerous, and radioactive steam was released from the auxiliary building. No one realized what was happening until 7 a.m —three hours after the first pump failed.

Between 7 and 10 a.m. the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and Pennsylvania state officials were notified and, as word spread, each succeeding report became more confusing than the last. The NRC called it “one of the most serious accidents we’ve had.” But a spokesman for Metropolitan Edison said there was never any danger of a

core melt-down. Pennsylvania Lieutenant-Governor William Scranton III said “‘Every thing is under control. There is and was no danger to public health and safety.”

By Thursday morning, the plant was still leaking low levels of radiation, and 400,000 gallons of slightly contaminated water were said to have been pumped into the Susquehanna River. By this time, every proand anti-nuclear group in the country was either sounding the alarm or praising the plant’s emergency systems. Carl Walske of Atomic Industrial Forum, a pro-nuclear lobby, was extolling the virtues of nuclear energy. He pointed out that no one had been killed and said the reactor was really quite safe. But Daniel Ford of the Union of Concerned Scientists charged that

the plant should have been shut long before because of 22 known safety problems there.

By Thursday night, NRC and plant officials were saying that the reactor was cooling slowly and that levels of radiation coming from the plant were declining. But that optimism was soon to be seen as far too premature. On Friday a series of three “uncontrolled bursts” sent more radiation into the air, and Thornburgh ordered the first precautions.

All Saturday, technicians worked at building a lead shield which would enable them to “bleed” a bubble of radioactive vapor threatening the reactor’s core, and start the cooling process. It was urgently needed; temperatures were only just below danger point and, NRC officials admitted, one wrong move could transform a partial meltdown, which had aleady occurred, into a total melt-down and the transmission

of lethal radiation into the surrounding area.

Meantime, there was heavy fallout of another kind—at the political level—as the situation developed. The incident could not have been more badly timed from the point of view of the pro-nuclear lobby. Congress had just begun a searching inquiry into the delicate question of licensing procedures for new nuclear power plants and the equally sensitive subject of waste disposal.

The atomic power industry had hoped to push through a bill that would halve the 10 to 12 years now needed for licensing procedures. It had also supported a department of energy suggestion that experimental dumps be built for nuclear waste for the nation’s 72 commercial reactors. The lobbying effort was in full force. General Electric had ordered its nuclear division executives to meet at least one congressman or administration official on every trip to Washington to preach the pro-nuclear litany. But the Three Mile Island accident turned the hearings into a running inquest on nuclear safety. As Congressman Morris Udall, chairman of the energy subcommittee, put it, the accident would be a significant milestone in determining “where this country goes with nuclear power.”

With so much riding on nuclear power as an alternative to oil—an option which is becoming daily more expensive for the U.S.—Carter was at pains to play the Three Mile Island accident cool. He sent an inter-agency task force to co-ordinate assistance and en-

sure that detailed evacuation plans were being drawn up for the Harrisburg area, and he also asked for similar plans to be readied for areas surrounding other nuclear power plants. But he issued no public statement and even went so far on Saturday as to pressure Senator Edward Kennedy to postpone a congressional investigation into what went wrong.

A detailed inquiry into all aspects of the affair could not long be delayed, however, and two aspects of the accident seemed likely to haunt the hopes of pro-nuclear campaigners for a long

time: the obvious inadequacy of current emergency procedures, both inside and outside nuclear plants; and the almost total public disbelief—not confined to the Harrisburg area—in official versions of what was happening.

Incredibly, despite at least a dozen smaller scares at other nuclear plants in the U.S., it soon became clear that no comprehensive emergency plans had been made to deal with a major accident. At one point, the state authorities, the local city and county authorities, the civil defence organization and the NRC all thought they were in charge of informing the public and deciding on what evacuation measures should be taken.

As a result no one did anything for long periods of time as the lines of authority were sorted out. Even then there was great confusion. Local radio and television stations broadcast just about everything that anyone would tell them, adding to the furore. The police, ambulance and fire departments sent vehicles through the streets blaring loud-speaker warnings.

Little wonder many residents were bitter about the way they had been treated. Said one mother of three, as she headed from her home near the plant to stay with relatives in Baltimore, “I don’t believe we know the truth. I don’t think they have told us just what radiation we have been exposed to.” Asked another mother, weeping: “How dare they, how dare they put us to this risk?” That was a question to which the whole world required an answer.

Catherine Fox

William Lowther