Three Mile Island: Reflections After 40 Years

Health Physics Society (HPS) members share their memories of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident, which occurred 40 years ago this March.


Norman W. Henry

I enjoyed reading fellow Health Physics Society members' comments about their experiences with TMI and thought that I would share mine as well. On that day I was working in my Delaware office for the DuPont Company as their RSO and received a call from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, asking if DuPont could help monitor for any release from the TMI reactor. Since I was an industrial member of the State Radiation Authority, I said that we only had Geiger Müller counters available and that we could monitor if needed. Now 40 years later, I am working for the state of Delaware as a part-time radiation control specialist and assigned to the DEMA (Delaware Emergency Management Agency) Technical Advisory team to participate in emergency drills to develop protective action guides should there be a release from Salem and Hope Creek generating reactors across the Delaware river in NJ. What a difference it is now that we have computers and computer programs (Midas) that can take the data (weather conditions, wind direction, and release information about the plume) and calculate dose projections within 15 minutes to determine whether to shelter in place or evacuate. It is impressive to realize how computer technology has advanced our knowledge and preparedness to responding to a nuclear emergency.


Thomas Essig

I was working for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in its Region 3 office (Chicago area) at the time of the accident as a section chief with oversight responsibility for environmental radiation protection, emergency preparedness, and independent radiological measurements (each region had a mobile lab at the time). I recall my boss calling a number of staff into his office on the morning of the accident and telling us that our Region 1 office had just been notified by Metropolitan Edison (Met Ed) that TMI-2 had experienced an event that may have involved some fuel damage. We received updates during the day. The next morning at around 0400, I received a phone call from my office requesting that I prepare to be dispatched for a briefing at NRC's Region 1 office in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, before heading to the TMI site. I arrived at the TMI site during the early afternoon of Thursday, 29 March 1979. I was housed in "Trailer City" (a collection of mobile offices) for the next 10 days or so. My task was to oversee what Met Ed staff were doing in terms of environmental radiation measurements—what types of samples (air, water, pasture grass, milk, etc.) were being collected, what types of ambient gamma radiation measurements were being made, and how the data were being analyzed.

My counterpart section chief from our Region 1 office and I agreed to split the work day into 12-hour shifts so that we had 24/7 coverage. We had a GM detector sitting in our trailer that we left on all of the time. I distinctly recall regularly hearing the instrument's annunciator telling us that we were being immersed in a low-level noble gas cloud. Then it would pass, only to reappear again.

Finally, my initial tour of duty ended and I was allowed to go home—only to learn that I was to reappear on-site in mid-April to be a part of the NRC's Incident Investigation Team. That effort included 10 days on-site and four days home, and then repeat this two-week cycle until August 1979 when our report was finished. Those were interesting times . . .


Margaret E. McCarthy

Spring 1979

As a physics faculty member pregnant with my second child, I witnessed the lack of understanding of the public about radiation. Baystate Medical Center, the second largest medical facility in the Massachusetts Commonwealth, in Springfield, observed the massive cancellation of appointments for medical procedures involving x rays and radionuclides. Based on ambient radiation levels and the specific radionuclides, I was not concerned about my present nor future health.

The publicity soon died down; levels of pertinent medical procedures returned to normal. As stated back then in many an evaluation, the lasting overriding effect was psychological.

Fast forward to 1985 when I became the chairman of the Nuclear Medicine Technology program to usher the course of study and its clinical affiliations through accreditation. At the exit interview, the physician team leader expounded, for no known reason, on nuclear radiation and TMI and "that" Allen Brodsky, who said that there would be no long-term radiation effects. "Yes," I responded, "I know him quite well as he was my thesis advisor in Pittsburgh and I thoroughly accept his evaluation."

The HPS has addressed the public education aspect, and quite well; however, the sensationalism relating to ionizing radiation and valid health risks is still promoted and a judicious balance still eludes the common media.


John Keklak

I was a little more than a year out of grad school, working here at Jefferson University and Hospital in Philadelphia. With Philly being only about 100 miles "downwind," the local reporters covered the story very heavily. During the first week of April, as the reporters were filtering back into town, they contacted us to ask if there was any way to determine if they received any dose. As they had not worn dosimeters, the basic answer was "no," but with prodding from them and our PR folks, we cited the (extremely) remote possibility of radioiodine uptake. The result was that throughout April of 1979, I performed thyroid counts on 22 on-air reporters or crew from two television stations and one news-radio station, plus a Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper reporter, and even one guy from Newsday magazine. Measured no uptake activity, as was fully expected. One channel did film and run a story putting me on the 6 o'clock news, but I did not get home in time to see it and never did (hardly anyone had VCRs yet).


Robert Miltenberger

I was working at Brookhaven National Laboratory on the Marshall Islands Radiological Safety Program 40 years ago and was a Radiological Assistance Program (RAP) team member. I received a predawn call from the RAP team leader at home that the team was assembling for a possible deployment to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to support the state of Pennsylvania in responding to a reactor accident at TMI. Several hours later, we deployed, traveling on a Coast Guard helicopter. Several interesting events happened in transit. First, a private plan came within 200 feet of the helicopter and the pilot executed a controlled free fall of about 2,500 feet to avoid a collision near North Philadelphia. Second, as we were approaching Harrisburg, the rotor fail light came on. We descended rapidly and soon the light went out. After landing at the Harrisburg airport, we found out that the rotor fail system was a GM counter that faced up on the exterior of the helicopter and each blade had a 90Sr source with a shield held in place by pressure. We had flown through the noble gas plume from TMI. We spent the first day tracking the plume with micro-R meters and taking air samples. 


Stephen P. Matthews

I started working for the State of Washington, Radiation Control Section, 1 April 1980. My job was to inspect Nuclear Engineering Company at the Hanford 200 area (now US Ecology). I was assigned to watch them unload barrels of radioactive waste. I seem to recall about every fourth truck was from TMI. And I "checked" them with my Cutie Pie!


David Sliney

I was at home on this weekend morning when the presses started rolling on TMI. The fact this occurred on a weekend when all science editors tended to be home and some new-hires were in the press room led to very ill-informed, naive reports of a great disaster rather than sober reports that the safety systems functioned. I remember at a subsequent HPS meeting some science writers were being grilled by HPS members why the accident was so blown out of proportion, and this was their explanation.


Craig Little

I don't remember exactly where I was during the TMI accident. But I know that I was working at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and, in 1980, several colleagues and I published a report titled "Estimates of Dose Due to Noble Gas Releases From the Three Mile Island Incident Using the AIRDOS-EPA Computer Code."


Nelson F. Warren

OK, well, when it occurred, I had left the field and sworn I would never go back—but when I pulled into the parking lot at Teledyne-McKay, in York, Pennsylvania (where I was QA QC for welding products) that night, mine was the only open spot, and there were maybe 100 cars packed with kids and belongings. I didn't really get much done—spent most of that shift explaining to people why they weren't really at risk (yet) and what to do if the situation changed.

By Christmas, my wife was there running TLDs and I had been offered enough to make me decide to go back. I spent the next year tracking down the 1,162 people on site entry logs but not accounted for or doing dose assessment calculations on, well, everyone . . . and then doing it again when I came up with a calculation the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) liked better. Did rad waste shipping calcs and surveys for moving resin beds into the interim long-term storage—even one or two entries into the aux building . . . and a whole lot more. All while living and building a true half-timber (real oak beams with dowels and bricks) frame, three-story house in Brogue, a little town on the other side of the river and within the 10-mile radius. Loved Amish country, but might wish I had stayed a university RSO on Long Island.

Did it change things? Of course. Did we learn from it? No, not really. Utilities went right on operating to and for the bottom line and their shareholders. Very little effort was made to remake the industry in the public's eye. On the bright side, the NRC finally had the backing to actually follow up—which they had never had before. We could have, and should have, built better plants—our kids might pay for that folly.


Richard Poeton

Where was I 40 years ago? I was in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lab adjacent to the Oregon State University (OSU) campus in Corvallis, Oregon. I was working my way through an OSU MS in radiological science by working part-time as an HP at the Corvallis Environmental Research Lab. I could not help thinking that TMI might be the end of my job prospects. Yet shortly thereafter I got a good job offer from a high-profile architect-engineering company in downtown Chicago. Then my initial concerns seemed to be realized the day I was packing up to move to Chicago when a letter from the A-E company came rescinding my offer. No doubt whatever nuclear project they had lined up had fallen victim to TMI. I still had an offer from Knolls Atomic, so off to Schenectady I went. Eventually I had a career at EPA and was even able to count my time at the EPA lab in Corvallis towards my federal retirement.


Todd Jackson

In 1979, I was an intern with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). I visited TMI-2 during initial startup and testing, and then within a day of the accident arrived at the TMI Visitor Center. I joined a rotation to operate the NRC mobile lab gamma-spec system. A tent city and mess hall sprung up, Harold Denton saved the day, and President and Mrs. Carter toured the plant. People were scared, only the plant was seriously damaged, and the world changed. Our mobile phone was briefcase-sized and told us "all circuits are busy" any time we tried to use it. One pay phone at the Visitor Center initially served (poorly) all responders and the media hordes. It was difficult to call home, but my wife said she knew I was okay because she saw my hands in a view of the lab on a TV report. The gamma-spec computer was reprogrammed for each function at every use, with punched paper tape input. The plant surprised workers when 90Sr appeared, an indicator that fuel was seriously damaged. I departed The Island later in the year, as the long effort began to recover.

It was quite something to experience during my first full year of employment.


David Simpson

I was working on my PhD in nuclear engineering at the University of Illinois and also just over a month from my wedding when I heard of TMI. I was also about to drop out of school due to lack of money. A few days into the incident I got a call from Frazier Bronson asking if I would be willing to work at TMI as a lab tech to assist his company. I got on a plane the next day, landed in Harrisburg, and immediately reported to Frazier's trailer, which was in "Trailer City" across the river from the plant. For the next two weeks, I worked 12 hours per day, seven days per week on counting environmental samples. Meals were served in tents by local convicts from the nearby prison, as I recall. I had to return to Illinois after about two weeks to get my blood test for the marriage. The money that I earned during that time helped support me to the completion of my PhD. The most unusual sample that we got was a Marinelli beaker of chocolate from the nearby Hershey plant, though I didn't get to count it or eat it.