The day we held our breath: Berks man looks back 30 years to his part in Three Mile Island calamity

Thirty years ago today, Temple resident Robert M. Dreibelbis Sr., a Met-Ed executive, was plunged into uncharted territory by the worst nuclear accident the U.S. had ever known.

By Jason Brudereck

Reading Eagle

 

Nearly four hours into the accident, Bob Dreibelbis was getting ready to leave his Temple home for work like any other day.

 

Then the phone rang.

 

Robert M. Dreibelbis Sr., purchasing manager for the electric utility Met-Ed, answered and found himself speaking to a Met-Ed engineering supervisor whose responsibilities included Three Mile Island.

 

It was 7:45 a.m. March 28, 1979, when the engineering supervisor called to tell Dreibelbis he had to quickly procure a helicopter to fly two men from the nuclear plant on an island three miles down river from Harrisburg because they had been exposed to radiation.

 

 

Dreibelbis knew right away that something very unusual was happening that morning 30 years ago today.

 

"This is Bob you're talking to so cut the crap and tell me what's really happening," Dreibelbis said.

 

The engineering supervisor sounded calm and professional as he told Dreibelbis there had been an accident at the TMI Unit 2 reactor. Radioactive water had been spilled, and people might be hurt.

 

"Then he told me we needed a lot of rain suits (hazardous waste suits) and booties and protective gear," recalled Dreibelbis, now 72 and still living in the same Temple home with his wife, Barbara.

 

The TMI accident, which would dramatically alter the perception and future of the nuclear power industry in the United States, had begun at 4 a.m.

 

A series of mechanical failures prompted plant operators to do the exact wrong thing in the face of an escalating emergency.

 

"The gauges were wrong; we were about to expose the core," Dreibelbis said.

 

Exposing the reactor's core would result in the core melting down into a mass so hot that some scientists believed it would burn into the earth and release radioactivity into the environment.

 

Confusing signals and ringing alarms from the control room instruments led operators to make assumptions and errors that made the situation worse.

 

"In the beginning, people couldn't grasp the situation because the computer that was supposed to analyze the situation was talking gibberish," Dreibelbis said.

 

Dr. Larry Foulke, director of nuclear engineering at the University of Pittsburgh, calls what happened to the plant operators an "alarm avalanche."

 

"There was so much chaos in the control room that it took them hours to discover that there was a loss of cooling water," he said.

 

That exposed the core and the reactor sustained a partial meltdown.

 

"The core melted and yet there was no China Syndrome," said Foulke, referring to the theory that the molten reactor core would melt down through the containment facilities and keep going.

 

Coincidentally, "The China Syndrome," a major motion picture about a crisis at a nuclear plant, had been released 12 days before the accident and fueled fears about it.

 

Despite the fears and officials' failure to immediately assuage them, there was no real danger to public health, Dreibelbis and Foulke contend. No one was killed or injured, Foulke said.

 

Various studies have come to wide-ranging conclusions about long-term health effects, which Dreibelbis acknowledges are possible.

 

"But we had it under control very early in the game," Dreibelbis said.

 

Dreibelbis has pages and pages of internal memos and purchase orders for safety equipment used after the accident, which memos refer to as an "outage."

 

To fill some of the purchase orders, Dreibelbis turned to John J. Allen, the owner of a Pottstown company known then as ASK; today it is known as JB Supply Inc.

 

"He's a guy who saved a lot of the island because he got a lot of gear," Dreibelbis said of Allen, who died in 2003. "He got the state police of Connecticut, New York and New Jersey to give him an escort to get air packs to the plant."

 

Dreibelbis went to the island, which is in Londonderry Township, Dauphin County, a few times to help.

 

One time, another man noted caution tape keeping people away from contaminated areas.

 

Later, they noticed the place where they had previously walked was behind the tape.

 

"The other guy was real scared," Dreibelbis said. " 'Oh my God,' he said."

 

Another time, Dreibelbis got a report from the island: "These job johnnies we got here are 'hot,' " - showing unusually high levels of radioactivity.

 

Dreibelbis said he assumes that was because the workers who were using them had received low-level doses of radioactivity and it was showing up in their waste.

 

"But from my perspective, it could have been worse," Dreibelbis said.

 

Nonetheless, fear and anger prompted some people to call and threaten Met-Ed employees, including Dreibelbis.

 

"It was a lynch mob mentality," he said.

 

Contact Jason Brudereck: 610-371-5044 or jbrudereck@readingeagle.com.