Thursday, March 11, 2004

It hits the fan, part 1

Once upon a time in March 1979, my father was at his job in Atlanta for a few weeks (he had a hell of a commute), and my mother was at home listening to the Frederick, MD, radio station. I guess I was at home, too, but I was four and don’t really remember much about this.

Mom almost spat her coffee out when she heard an announcer on the radio say that airline pilots flying in to National Airport (downtown DC) could “see the flames and smoke from Gettysburg” as they were making their approach for landing.

It turns out that a white phosphorus truck had caught fire and exploded in town. Right next to the elementary school that I would eventually go for K-3, and it was only about 4 blocks from our house.

The fire was so intense it MELTED the civil war bronze statue about 50 feet away. They had to dig up the front yard of the school, haul it away, and eventually replace all the dirt.

The reason I start out with this story is to give you and idea of what we were coming off of when Three Mile Island hit the fan.

It hits the fan, part 2

Less than a week after the phosphorus incident, on (Thursday) March 28 th , Three Mile Island reactor #2 suffered a partial meltdown. Most people outside of our area don’t realize exactly how close we came to losing half the state of Pennsylvania, most of Maryland, all of Delaware, probably the nation’s capital, New Jersey, and NYC. It was VERY close to being a Chernobyl.

Again, dad’s in Atlanta, Mom & I are in Gburg. In the general area of Harrisburg and by and large all of Pennsylvania, we were in a media blackout. Something was going on with TMI, but we didn’t know exactly what. We were assured by the Powers That Be that everything was under control and not to worry. Plant officials were still trying to figure out how to stabilize the reactor, but had given a “the danger is over” message to the local public.

Outside the area, however, they were being given details. Over the next few days (over the weekend) my father in Atlanta learned what they were not telling us: a large bubble of radioactive hydrogen steam had been building in the reaction chamber. Cronkite mentioned on national news that there was a very real possibility of a total meltdown.

It hits the fan, part 3

More information of a technical nature started to filter into the media on Saturday and reached the ears of my dad in Atlanta. He served on some Nuclear Wessels while in the navy and had learned quite a bit about nuclear physics himself. He had worked some figures and realized that if the people at the plant didn’t figure out what to do, they would have a full meltdown. He had it figured to a particular time on Monday, but I don’t remember what the time was (sometime in the afternoon).

Dad got on the phone and tried to call us. He got the operator, who told him all lines were busy. Dad explained the situation, and the operator said she could try once, but that was it. In some amazing cosmic anomaly, the call went through.

My mother was, of course, oblivious to the depth of what was going on. We were completely in the dark. Dad brought her up to speed, told her to pack whatever we needed immediately, she would be meeting my uncle Sam at Baltimore-Washington International (BWI) Sunday morning and he was driving us to Atlanta. And we did. Mom packed clothes and stuff, but also the family German bible, the silver set, and family pictures. Sunday morning we left for the airport.

It hits the fan, part 4

Yes, we evacuated. I still remember walking through the airport that Sunday and seeing Sam standing there waiting for us.

I still get fairly emotional when I get to this point. I mean, I didn’t know what was going on, I was 4. I don’t remember any sense of fear or panic or anything from my mom or anyone around me, but I can imagine that the place was probably full of people trying to get out. I think I must have known that something unusual was going on.

But looking back on it I realize that if things had gone the other way, I never would have seen my childhood home again. Or the battlefield, or my family in PA (we left my grandfather at the nursing home, I just realized that). A lot of things. I probably would be speaking with a deep sothrun accent right now. My life would have been very different.

Monday, April 1, President Jimmy Carter visited TMI. You might ask: why on earth would a president visit a potentially deadly place, and why would the secret service let him? Many people asked that. The answer: Mr. Jimmy had graduated from the Annapolis Naval Academy with a degree in nuclear physics. I really get annoyed when someone jokes about President Carter. He may not have been our best president, but he is a good man. I'm glad he was president when this emergency happened.

Anyway, it turned out that the full meltdown my father predicted was stopped **half an hour** before it happened. That’s how close we came, people. Half an hour.

It hits the fan, part 5

We stayed in Atlanta with my grandparents for over a month, just to make sure. My father had an 18-wheeler ready to go to Gettysburg and get our stuff to bring south if need be. Mom drove us home, she often tells me that she followed dad on the interstate around Atlanta. She had to go straight, he took an off-ramp and she was crying as they waved goodbye. On the way home, we stopped in Tennessee for the night with someone she used to work with in DC, I can remember her and her house, too, barely.

In the wake of the disaster, several things happened:
  • TMI reactor 2 was permanently shut down. The other reactors are still in operation.
  • After this accident, all other plans for nuclear reactors to be built in the United States were shelved indefinitely. Some have been finished since, but no new plants have been ordered. Some people are upset about this, because nuclear energy is so much ‘cleaner.’
  • There was a cover-up about the radiation that was, in fact, released into the atmosphere from the reactor. They claimed at the time it never happened. Now they agree that over the course of a week they released large amounts of radioactive steam and hydrogen (about 13 million curies worth). Most doctors state that the public didn’t have any ill effects from this. I say bull. There was a dramatic increase in a blood cancer called Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in the area that the steam plume traveled (a friend of mine had this, and she lived down-river from the reactor). Doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure that out. Also, there were major fish die-offs in the Susquehanna River, major die-offs of livestock and yes, a couple years after the accident a two-headed calf was born, among other deformaties in plants and animals. Pictures here.
  • As a result of hurricane Agnes and a few other major disasters in the 1970s, Jimmy Carter created FEMA as a centralized governmental agency to respond to all disasters. It was actually signed into effect on the day Mr. Jimmy went to TMI, April 1, 1979. That’s a joke around here, FEMA was created on April Fools Day. It wasn’t a cabinet-level department until Bill Clinton elevated it in the 90s, and now it is, unfortunately, under the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Major lessons were learned about systems, operators, and engineers. The accident cause was two-fold: a water valve got stuck in the OPEN position and the warning sensor for that valve failed to go off (so, basically what happened was the core, which should be covered in water, was actually drained of water and exposed causing the heat and gases to build and build). Because of some poor decisions, the technicians did the opposite thing from what they should have done, and everything cascaded from there. Then, when radiation and temperature readings were VERY high (like Oh. My. God. high), no one believed the readings.
  • Because of TMI, we all had to learn how a nuclear reactor works in my 11 th grade chemistry class, so I can draw you a diagram and explain it if you want. It's one of those rare talents that makes me such fun at parties.

SO, I'm fairly anti-nuclear power. I just don't think it is worth it.