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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 June 2006, 14:30 GMT 15:30 UK
Three Mile nuclear fears revealed
Twenty-seven years after the US suffered its worst nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, Martin Bell - who covered the story at the time for the BBC - looks at recently published archive interviews which reveal what the local community was thinking.

Cooling towers at Three Mile Island reactor
The power station's first reactor was undamaged
In 1979 the BBC office in Washington was not the great news factory that it is today, but a quiet little place, with just two journalists and a secretary. I was the TV correspondent, with the whole of North America as my beat, and a freedom that today's practitioners might well envy.

So when, on 28 March that year, I heard of an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power station in Pennsylvania, I did not ask for anyone's authorisation.

I just chartered a plane to Harrisburg, the state capital, and got there as quickly as possible.

Nuclear power was the future then - the brave new world of clean energy. But on Three Mile Island something had gone seriously wrong.

The first reactor (TMI One) on the power station on the Susquehanna river was closed for refuelling.

The second, newer reactor was going at full capacity when two malfunctions occurred: first there was a release of radioactive water, then radioactive gas was detected on the perimeter.

Could these be signs of the dreaded meltdown?

The fear of a nuclear disaster was very much in the public consciousness at the time because of the movie The China Syndrome which was then in the cinemas.

It depicted just such a nuclear accident with Jane Fonda as the investigative reporter trying to expose a cover-up.

'Chaos'

How closely real life came to mirror the film is partly revealed by a unique research project carried out at the time by the local university, Dickinson College, in nearby Carlisle.

I think I thought of the nuclear bombs exploding like in Hiroshima
Kay Flohr
Telephone company employee at the time

Twenty seven years on, it has released its own recordings of that time: hundreds of interviews with local people.

Ralph Desantis, one of the security staff at Three Mile Island, was among those interviewed.

He had just seen the film China Syndrome and had the plot running through his head.

"There was a line in the movie that said if there was a meltdown it would affect an area the size of Pennsylvania.

"It heightened people's sensitivities about nuclear accidents. The movie portrayed the utility as covering up the accident and the reporters were the good guys. People have a tendency to relate it to real life."

Behind the scenes, all was not well.

"I think it's safe to say chaos was the best way to describe it," says Samuel Walker, the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission's historian.

"They knew something serious was happening but they didn't know what and no one knew what until later in the day.

"What they didn't realise is that an hour and a half or so after the accident began... the core started to melt: the worst thing that can happen to a nuclear power plant."

Conflicting reports

Initially, spokesmen for the power station's operators, Met-Ed (Metropolitan Edison), were saying the risks were minimal.

Stainless steel and control rods and the reactor had actually melted as if in a blast furnace
Harold Denton
Nuclear Regulatory Commission
They said TMI would be back online in a couple of days but as time passed, trust in the authorities eroded including for Charles Sellers who worked at Dickinson College.

"I did feel resentment about conflicting reports and what seemed to me to be reassurances based on very little actual evidence," Mr Walker adds.

"There seemed to be evident attempts to say things carefully always with concern with image in mind. It didn't take me long to get the feeling that they didn't know what the heck they were talking about."

Kay Flohr, who worked for a local telephone company at the time, described the frightening images that were running through people's minds:

"I think I thought of the nuclear bombs exploding like in Hiroshima. I think this was more frightening because you had so many unknown conditions. With nuclear you're not quite sure what to expect."

Pennsylvania's governor at the time was Richard Thornburg, who had been in office only 72 days. He too had not been getting a clear picture of what was going on at the nuclear plant:

"It was frustrating more than anything else because I'd been trained as an engineer and a lawyer, two professions that rely on the integrity of facts.

"In order for me to carry out responsibilities I needed facts and we simply weren't getting them. There was nobody more angry than I that the utility had failed to honour their responsibility to the community by running a safe nuclear operation and more than that had attempted to mislead the public about what the consequences were."

On the third day of the crisis he ordered a limited evacuation.

Public duty

The accident was contained within days as was the panic arising from it, thanks in large part to the reassuring presence of Harold Denton from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission who was sent by President Carter as his personal ambassador to Three Mile Island.

Today he recalls how it was not until over two years after the accident that the site was cleaned up enough to take the reactor vessel head off and actually take a good look at what had happened:

"I remember we put a TV camera down into the container in order to look at the core.

"As we went one foot into core, we looked around and nothing was visible, so we lowered it another foot - still nothing visible.

"They lowered it about halfway down the reactor before they discovered that beneath the camera was a molten bed of reactor material. Stainless steel and control rods and the reactor had actually melted as if in a blast furnace."

So long after the event, there are two things that make this story worth re-telling.

One is the access to all those contemporary interviews.

The other is the insight it gives us into the present day argument about whether nuclear energy might be - again - the wave of the future.

Martin Bell's documentary on Three Mile Island can be heard in Radio 4's Archive Hour on Saturday 17 June at 2000BST or afterwards online at Radio 4's Listen again page.




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