tv Three Mile Island 40th Anniversary - Part 1 CSPAN August 16, 2019 10:54am-11:24am EDT
successful. they were captured. as punishment for their attempt to escape, robert carter got permission from the court in 1708 to have their toes cut off. >> explore our nation's past on american history tv, every weekend on cspan3. march 28th, 1979, the events just outside of harrisburg, pennsylvania. the next 90 minutes here on "washington journal" and history tv, we look at the accident which was the partial meltdown of reactor number two at the facility in pennsylvania. it occurred 40 years ago. the incident rated a 5 on the 7-point international nuclear event scale. as the story continued to unfold 40 years ago, here's how ed bradley of cbs news covered it.
>> evacuations. at this time, there is no immediate evacuation. please stay indoors with your windows closed. >> reporter: this is not a community that scares easily. major floods and hurricane agnus have come here, and the town survived. almost a week last month, the people of middletown, pennsylvania, lived in fear of an enemy they couldn't see, hear, or feel. >> that from cbs news. of course, the fear was radiation following the partial meltdown at tmi, the nuclear generating station. considered the most serious nuclear power accident in the history of the u.s. for the next 90 minutes, we'll look back at the events that occurred. eric epstein is joining us live. he is the chair of the three mile island alert, which is what? >> three mile island alert is a safe energy organization founded in 1977, two years before the
accident at three mile island. we're a nuclear watchdog group that monitored a 3-mile island, three power plants on the river. >> you were there 40 years ago, march 28th, 1979. what do you remember, both when the news first broke and as the story continued to unfold in the days and weeks that followed? >> well, you know, i thinks t is interesting you covered mr. bradley's comments. we had a bifurcated response from our family. we had a family furniture store, and we'd survived three floods. actually, a fire. we were hunkered down. in fact, we delivered a dinette on saturday, the day after evacuation. my brother who hadn't been born, he was in his first trimester, my father evacuated. like a lot of folks, there was confusion, anxiety, chaos. company was providing disinformation and misinformation, as you could well tell by the lieutenant governor's comments on thursday,
the day after the accident. by friday, that teed things up for a precautionary evacuation, which was for preschool children and pregnant women within 5 miles of the plant. approximately 144,000 people evacuated from as far as 0 to 50 miles. at the time, we weren't prepared for an evacuation. i'm not sure we could execute one now. i think we have better plans. the relocation centers were right outside of the 10 mile zone. one in hershey park and the other in william penn high school. we call it a shadow evacuation. when you declare an evacuation, people leave. they left. a lot of people left not knowing if they'd come back. it was a psychic terror. it was an agriculture community, so a lot of people stayed to take care of their crops and animals. people were conflicted, do i go, not go? do i leave my pets around? this was not the age of 365,
24/7 news cycle. it was a block of trust. what made it actually more difficult and confusing was the china syndrome had just been released several weeks ago. folks didn't have a baseline knowledge of nuclear power. some journalists were tasked to see the china syndrome before they covered this story. on wednesday, you know, things, you know, occurred. when we learned there was a problem at tmi, we learned 40% of the core melted. we didn't really know the damage until 1982/'93 when the temperatures reached 4800 degrees. we had two phases of the accident. loss of energy and a hydrogen bubble. there were two prongs, and folks had to respond on little to no knowledge. the company didn't help, as you found in the reports. they intentionally misled the governor as to the severity of the accident. >> what we heard from the cbs report, keep your windows shut, would that have made any difference at that time, based on what they knew or did not
know? >> yeah, i mean, i think, you know, again, ed bradley captures the uncertainty and the unpreparedness of the company, the government, and then the community. i interviewed people who were in elementary school on the west shore of the river told to go home. they were kids in elementary school. put a book over their head and hold their breath. these precautionary instructions we got would have little to no impact on mitigating the effects of exposure to radiation. you have to remember, friday, when the evacuation occurred, was an unreasonably warm day, so people were outside. school was in session. you just had chaos. people coming to the school to pick up their kids. you know, remember, some people have kids in elementary, middle, and high school, three stops, getting gas, going away, not knowing if they're coming back. one of the things we found after the accident is that the community suffered from chronic elevated psychological stress. as you can see, the cooling towers behind us are haunting.
so from march 28th '79 to '85, the other plant that wasn't involved in the accident, tmi unit one, was actually shut down for refueling at that time. that plant was shut down, and there was a fierce battle over whether or not we should restart the plant. so people's responses were mixed and confused, and it wasn't helped by the fact the company misled the governor. then on sunday, if you recall the accident begins on wednesday, evacuation on a friday, president carter came on sunday. i think that calmed a lot of people, but the real hero was the mayor here of middletown, robert reid, who stayed behind. he is still here. he is not mayor, just stepped down. common people had uncommon courage during that time. i think this community is no exception. you know, born here, lived here, will probably pass here for the most part. revolutionary era stock. we're not going anywhere. you know, we've survived floods and fires. unfortunately, a core meltdown is not something you expect to have to survive, but what the
viewers should know, the accideaction is not over. unit two was defueled. it hasn't been decommissioned or decontaminated. only operated 90 days. the plant was supposed to operate for 40 years. we have a high level radioactive waste site on an island in a river that may never be cleaned up. in a sense, the accident still continues. >> our guest is eric epstein, the chair of the three mile island alert. we are dividing our phone lines region regionally. if you are a resident of the area in central pennsylvania, you can join in by calling us at 202-748-8002. eric epstein, what happened 40 years ago? >> well, what happened was -- i don't know if you want to call it an accident. an accident is when a deer runs in front of a truck and gets hit. this was an anticipated disaster. the relief valve, which opened as it should, indicated on the channels that it had closed, and it hadn't closed. we had what was known as a loss
of accident. thousands of gallons of water was lost. there wasn't until there was a shift change until the valve was closed. we found out through the department of energy years later that the temperatures were about 4800 degrees, which was significant. again, a core melt accident which led to the fuel being exposed and interacting with oxygen which creates hydrogen. so that created the hydrogen bubble scare. you have the loss of core melt accident. we didn't have a baseline knowledge of nuclear, so it was the fear of the unknown. china syndrome in the background. misinformation, disinformation. by friday, the governor and commissioner henry agreed to do a precautionary evacuation. the hydrogen bubble issue gradually receded, and the plant was put into cold shutdown. took several weeks to get to that condition. so one of the things that happened was a loss of trust.
i mean, this was a very conservative, republican, bible-belt area, and i was one of the people thought this was a great thing. this was a magical technology. too cheap to meter. this was the future. it was hard to believe that not only did it fail. when it was being built, we were told it was an likely as a meteor falling from the sky that an accident would happen. not only did it fail, we were misled. in this area, once you lose people's trust, it is hard to get it back. >> don is joining us from alexandria, virginia. good morning. >> caller: yeah, good morning. i appreciate cspan having this piece on. i really would like to note that while three mile island was absolutely an accident, fuel melt, no substantial fission products were released to the environment. it was all contained as designed. the radiation levels were minor
to almost nothing. and the general area around the plant, no one was hurt. no bad health effects occurred. and that was a test of the design to absolutely mitigate and contain the worst case accident. >> thank you, don. we'll get a response. >> that's an absurd assertion. it is based on bad science. it is a bad coxed plan. the design breached because of the anticipated. similar incident in 1978, the year before. the valve was manufactured by dresser industries. 10% failure rate. the man is absolutely misinformed. the monitors went off stack, filters were clogged. the monofor itors could only ab low levels of radiation. if you look at the dose
inventory, the amount of raisuation rais radiation released is still controversial because we didn't have exact measurements. if you look at the health studies, beginning with columbia, pittsburgh, north carolina, which was definitive, and the health study last year which found increased thyroid cancer at penn state, clearly, the facts on the ground demonstrate people were harmed by three mile island. there were huge releases of radiation. in an interview, there were four surveys taken of people who lived in the nexus of the pathway of radiation exposure, and they all reported the same thing. folks around here don't lie. they reported me ttallic taste, sunburn, diarrhea, all consistent with diarrhea. if you don't look, you don't find. the nrc hasn't changed the amount they think was released, 10 million. we believe it was probably closer to 100 million. that debate has been settled. if nothing really was released, you'd have to ask the company
why they settled health claims almost in excess of $100 million. this country, money tends to speak. >> eric epstein, physically, geographically, where are you located? >> well, three mile island is an interesting island. it is actually not three miles. it is 2.2 miles. we're the closest nuclear power plant to an airport. what's iconic is you can't fly over disneyland, but it is okay to fly over three mile island. we're in south central pennsylvania. about 12 miles from the capital. we're also very close to the amish, if you go to the east, which raises another issue. it is very difficult to contact people that don't have a phone to evacuate. to the west is york county. this was a post 11 town image of america. three mile island behind us. you have a coal plant to the west. you have a small hydro dam. if you go to the community across from us, there is a little plaque to lake frederick
that basically said, this is the future. atomic power at three mile island. coal at bruner island. a small plant that had been managed. this is great, and still is, great water skiing and fishing. i came down to reck rreate, as everyone. i was opposed to three mile island prior to the accident, but you're in conservative, bible-belt pennsylvania. >> let's go to annie, joining us from sugar grove, north carolina. good morning. >> caller: hi, good morning, steve. before i ask my question, i have a comment to make about your 30-day rule, call-in rule. as my soon to be 89-year-old mother would say, i have a bone to pick with you. >> okay. >> caller: you have a caller who calls in from north charleston, south carolina, and his name is steve. i know you know who he is. you chguys chat it up. he has a distinctive voice. he called in january 18th, february 5th, march 2nd, and march the 25th.
>> wow. >> caller: four times in 66 days. i left comments on your comment line at least two times, for sure three times, because i recognize his choice. you two chat it up. how you doing, steve? how, steve. how are you, steve? i know you know who he is. >> dually noted. we'll do a better job to make sure that steve doesn't get through. annie, go ahead with your question. we're glad you got through today. >> caller: i think he needs to be banned really. i'm sick of it. my question, i had just turned 24 years old when that happened, when three mile island happened. my question is, since it is to close to hershey, i heard over the years that it is not really safe to buy chocolate made in that area because of the fallout. thank you for your time. >> thank you, annie. >> you know, that is a really good question. let me answer it in two trenches. the first, this is an area where people came to visit. we're right next to the amish,
which people love to see. lancaster county. people came here for hershey. people also came for the gettysburg battlefield. we were within a whiff of losing all of that. one of the things that occur re is this is a place you wanted to go to. lancast lancaster, hershey, gettysburg. after the accident, we were a pariah, a place you wanted to avoid. hershey froze the milk. the half-life of the nuclei is eight days. they froze it for 90 and used it again. that was one of the pushbacks you got after the accident. tourism went down. we took an economic hit. people didn't want to come to this area. you still have hershey park here. you have hershey chocolate. they did purchase milk. they froze it and used it later. it is a legitimate issue. being born and raised here, i love living here, so i feel fortunate to live so close to
hershey and lancaster and gettysburg, encourage people to come here. i know there is a certain degree of dark tourism. people snap up pictures of tmi. if i could put in a plug, i think hershey product is a superior product. >> we'll go to bonnie who lives in lancaster, pennsylvania. good morning. >> caller: good morning. what do you want to know? all i can remember is that my brother brought my parents down through the door. they lived in elizabethtown. my father was clutching his coin collection. i thought he was going to pass out. number two, i lost two classmates. they said that they believe that they were downwind, lived the bainbridge, and they died from cancer. they think it was due to tmi. thirdly, my father remembers when they used to farm the three
mile island. i guess they took a barge across. i would imagine. my father was born in 1916. i don't know if they took a track or whatever, but he said it was a corn field. number four, tmi is called three mile island because it is three miles from the center of middletown. >> bonnie, thank you. >> yeah, i've heard that before. you know, the three mile island. it had a host of names prior to this, honestly. we're stuck with three mile island. she raises a good issue. one of the things i'd encourage people to do is go to the tmi survivors facebook. there are several thousand members, and they discuss the experiences they had, the health effects they believe they had. we've done four surveys, where we have our archives. the surveys were done by marjory
and james, who passed away, marie osborne, newbury township, and tmi alert. if anybody is interested, we're still doing surveys. t tmia.com at three mile alert. there has been an uptick in thyroid cancer. that's why hershey medical, i believe, conducted a study last year that indicated an increase in thyroid cancer for folks near three mile island. they'll expand the study. unfortunately, there are no health or cancer registry for the workers, unlike the department of defense, where we can track those. unfortunately, the commonwealth of pennsylvania no longer tracks the incident. it is up to citizens. i'd encourage people to go to the facebook page or webpage. we have a press packet for the 40th anniversary. you can contact us if you want to continue the discussion after this episode. >> eric epstein, you mentioned
the c"china syndrome" traimovie. here is a trailer from the 1979 mov movie. >> the china syndrome. it's about people, people who lie, and people faced with the agony of telling the truth. >> right. >> people like kimberly wells, a television reporter paid to smile, not to think. >> the few words about a veterinarian who makes house calls on sick fish, or is it aquarium calls? >> richard adams, a cameraman who never learned to play by the rules. >> get another room and get the radiation all over that cute little body. >> reporter: jack bidell, an engineer who knows too much to tell the truth. >> anything that man ever does, there is an element of risk, right? that's why we have defense in depth. >> and cares too much to lie. >> no accident. >> it will start with a tremor in a nuclear power plant, where it will end will depend on three people.
>> i would say you're probably lucky to be alive. same for the rest of southern california. >> jane fonda. >> let's face it, you didn't get this job because of your investigative abilities. >> don't find it. >> jack lemmon. >> douglas. >> i don't know accident is the right word. >> it is the right word. >> that trailer from "the china syndrome." eric epstein, put that into perspecti perspective. >> the one quote i'd extract is the quote from the character who said safety in depth. that used to be the mantra of the industry. redundancy systems. we've seen a large scale back in staffing levels. the nrc has turned into a laissez-faire regulatory body when they started the oversight process. since '79, i think lessons were learned. i think training has improved. i think we're falling back to where we were in '79. i don't see safety in depth
anymore. i see older plants, aging plants that aren't working as well, that aren't staffed to the levels they should be. refueling outages, which used to be 12 months, are now 18, now every two years. i think that issue sometimes gets missed. i think the other thing that was chilling about the china syndrome is the spokesperson was eerily reminiscent of jack irvin, the spokesperson for edsed s edison at the time. >> it was filmed during that era, as the story unfolded in middletown, pennsylvania. we listen to barbara joining us from new jersey. good morning. barbara, are you with us? we'll try one more time for barbara in new jersey. just have lost that call. as you look back 40 years ago and get a sense of how the story unfolded, no social media, no cable, what were people telling you? what do you -- i know you were in college at the time, but you
certainly came back. what were they telling you in the spring and summer of 1979? >> yeah, it is interesting. people that opposed nuclear power were marginalized and on the fringe. i was volunteering for the alliance for survival, critical to the plant which, by the way, shut down because of steam generator problems, similar to tmi which has steam generator problems. a lot of the information that got out -- remember, back then, when you called, oh, it was hard, rotary phones, or you had to call collect or use a credit card. it was very difficult to communicate. people -- there's networks, and people were basically observing what workers were doing. if workers were sending their families away, they went away. truck drivers were communicating through cb. if you were focused on the information you were getting from the company, you were confused. you had no idea what was going on. people were taken by surprise and had to make, you know, information essentially on the run. there were some people, up until recently, that still had high
anxiety levels, would always have a full tank of gas, tmi money. it was a different time. i don't know if having all those outlets or portals of communication are better now. i'm not sure that good information gets -- always gets vetted properly or filtered properly. difficult time in terms of communication. look, at the time, i'd also point out, not many science and environmental reporters. the "inquirer" came in later, "new york times," people with different skill sets trickled in a day or two. initially, folks in the media were trying to get information, trying to get to the truth, and really didn't have the background that would have been helpful. >> before we get to the next call, is the plant in any way operational today? >> unit two has a possession only license. it is part of an i agreement we executed in '93. it will never operate again. the problem is, it is in what's known as, well, call it whatever you want, post defueled monitor storage. it is abandoned.
in the '90s, we had 1,500 workers defueling the plant. we extracted 97% or 98% of the fuel. it was loaded and taken to illinois -- rather, idaho, inel. there was no decommissioning fund, so we had to bail them out under the thornburg plan to defuel the plant. we got tithed with the decommissioning of $1.2 million. cost $700 million to build. the people in this area have spent $3 billion actually to build a plant that only operated 90 days. the irony is people in the area never got the energy. the people that owned and operated the company were in allentown, pittsburgh, and new jersey. tmi 2 is not going to operate again. i don't know if it'll be decommissioned, but we haven't had a human entry in the basement for 40 years. island in the river. empties to the chesapeake bay. not a good scenario. unit one has been operating since '74. may be shut down. it's lost $300 million in the
last five years. there is talk about bailing it out. you know, to go back to my earlier point, when this plant was sold, and it was sold in '99, we had 804 employees. we're down to 520. the amount of taxes the company pays has decreased. we're going to transition one way or the other. hopefully it is never a good time when anybody loses their job, but i think most of the people there at unit one will work on decommissioning. folks need to know that an accident that began in '79, 1979, the 20th century, may not be over until the 22nd century. >> ron in san antonio, texas. good morning. >> caller: hi. hi, eric. thank you for the information you've given. it's 40 years ago, but this seems like yesterday in some aspects. just a quick question on decommissioning. how much is that going to cost? is there any nrc plan to do it, or is it just sitting in storage for the next 50 years or whatever? >> they offer three options.
decon, the protocol the industry is doing now. they just did it in zion in illinois and oyster in new mexico. -- new jersey. a third-party comes on site. the third should be entombment, which would be a horrible action. tmi 2, when it came online, there was no decommissioning fund. the industry and the government has absolutely no vision of how they were going to clean these plants up. it is estimated it'll be $1.2 billion to clean the plant up. again, remember, rate payers, taxpayers, paid to build the plant, fuel the plant, and decommission the plant. unit one has a decommissioning fund but they can't go back to the rate payer. it's estimated to be $1 million. unit one is likely to be immediately decommissioned. tmi 2, i don't know, and it is a bizarre history.
tmi 2 will probably make history again because it needs a fourth way to decommissioning the plant. first energy owns dmi 2. exxon owns tmi 1. one plant may be decommission and had this may not be decommissioned. owned by two owners. this plant has 520 employees. this plant has zero. >> our last call is from philadelphia. carol, good morning. >> reporter: yeah, hi. i'm originally from pittsburgh, and i have been to that area a few times. last time was maybe five years ago, and i stayed at a motel in the middletown area. i talked to a woman who said they had nearly averted an accident there. it made the local papers. i'm wondering, you know, how often the near misses -- the gentleman, or the guest, your guest has been excellent in talking about some of the history and everything. he mentioned something about steam release systems. would that contribute to near
accidents? what are they doing to keep track of near accidents? thanks. >> carol, thank you. we've been looking at the scene behind you, and we're looking at the steam release today, as well, correct? >> yeah. unit one. unit two is obviously down. unit two, you'll see the baffling on the bottom has been dismantled because it caught on fire maybe three or four times more in the 1990s. the cooling tower is basically a nesting ground for swallows. the problem is, it is obviously a high-level radioactive waste site. unit one has 1,200 metric tons of radioactive waste. very interesting. this is one of the last plants. caller was talking about safety, so i'll duck tail into saying, look, most nuclear power plants were not designed to be high-level radioactive waste sites. this is a waste product with no forwarding address. this is a waste product that has to be monitored for at least 500 years. when you talk about cleaning up a nuclear power plant, this is a funeral where the pallbearer has
to stand in place for 500 years. what makes the plant interesting is they only spent on fuel. most of the industry transitioned to dry gas, a superior way of storing gas. even if the plant shuts down, it won't be until 2022 when we can start removing from the fuel pool. in terms of accidents, i'd say, folks, if you live near a nuclear reactor, what we should be doing first and foremost is finding a way to get rid of the radioactive waste. i don't know if anybody would buy a house with a toilet leading to the front yard, and the contractor would say, i'll come back 40, 50 years later. the toilet is there. the front yard is there. the waste is here. where is it going to go? >> on that note, eric epstein is joining us from middletown, california. the chair of the three mile island alert. thank you very much for being with us here on cspan television and cspan3's american history tv. >> it was the first step in a