Evacuating Three Mile Island: A Parent's Perspective

Central Pennsylvania is middle America. We enjoy holiday parades, Friday night football and old fashioned everything. We welcome the change of seasons and pretty much stay put from generation to generation. We’re used to America coming to us to visit Gettysburg, marvel at the Amish, and smell Hershey Chocolate.

My father admired the technology that was Three Mile Island. Driving towards the nuclear power plant he confidently welcomed the billowing steam clouds. Many residents boated, fished or water skied around the Island. School students routinely were paraded through the plant to greet their future. My dad was assured that an accident at Three Mile Island was “not possible.” I believed my dad. We believed the nuclear industry and the government.

The last week of March 1979 was unseasonably warm. Central Pennsylvanians stepped outside for their first, prolonged post-winter break. While Governor Richard Thornburgh was acclimating to Harrisburg, the “new” reactor in Middletown was struggling to stay on line.  On Wednesday, March 28, 1979, TMI became a household name. Two days later, while school was in session, area residents fled the area not knowing if or when they would return. America now knew us for all the wrong reasons.

Evacuation plans in 1979 were little more than an afterthought stashed in a drawer. The problem is that people are not hypothetical planning numbers. Human behavior rarely conforms to scientific predictions. People don’t want to leave their homes. Farmers don’t want to desert their animals. And Coatesville isn't Middletown.

I was away at college. My sister waited for my mom to pick her up at Linglestown Junior High School, my brother was in his first trimester, and the family furniture store, which had survived three floods and a fire, remained open.

  • Hershey still made chocolate, the Amish continued to plow Lancaster’s  fertile earth, and the Battlefield at Gettysburg still attracted visitors.
  • In Middletown, Mayor Robert Reid directed traffic out of town as fleeing residents asked him to protect their homes while they were gone.
  • To the north, streams of citizens from Harrisburg flowed down Market Street to line up for busses heading anywhere.
  • Across the river, Goldsboro became a ghost town, dairy cows continued to graze in Etters, and the City of York, like Harrisburg and Lancaster, had no nuclear evacuation plan.

The TMI community remains a living case study of how not to evacuate.  Many residents still keep an overnight bag packed, a stash of “TMI money”, and make sure their cars have a full tank of gas. For those of us who live, work and parent in the shadow of Three Mile Island, the Accident continues to exact a toll.

No reactor community should have to endure another nuclear nightmare. At the very least, we should stop pretending that emergency evacuation planning for small children is adequate.   I need to be able to get in my car, drive past Three Mile Island, and tell my daughter that adults are doing everything humanly possible to make sure there is no “next time.”


Eric J.  Epstein,  

Mr. Epstein is  Chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, Inc., tmia.com  a safe-energy organization  based  in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and founded in 1977, and a member of the American Nuclear Society.

Beaver Valley Unit 1 among reactors most vulnerable to quake damage

From the Beaver County Times:

While new Nuclear Regulatory Commission research puts the Beaver Valley Unit 1 nuclear reactor in Shippingport among the nation's most vulnerable to earthquake damage, First Energy officials say their site has adequate protection.

NRC "seismic hazard estimates" were revised in 2010 and obtained by MSNBC for a report that was made public following the recent catastrophic earthquake that damaged nuclear reactors in Japan.

The Beaver Valley site, according to the NRC numbers, was listed fifth among sites in earthquake damage probability. The report said Beaver Valley Unit 1 has a 1 in 21,739 chance of suffering core damage from an earthquake each year.

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What's the most at-risk U.S. nuclear power plant?

From CBS News:

Indian Point, located in Buchanan, N.Y., has the highest risk of core damage in the event of an earthquake, according to NRC estimates reported by MSNBC. At a 1 in 10,000 chance of core breach, that's right on the verge of what the NRC calls "immediate concern regarding adequate protection."

The East Coast comes off much worse than other parts of the country. The second plant on the list is Pilgrim 1 in Massachusetts. Number three is in Pennsylvania. The only West Coast plant is Diablo Canyon in California at number nine.

What explains it?

The government's list considered how close the plants were to major fault lines and how well they were designed to handle an earthquake. Back in the 1960s and 70s, when most of the plants were built, the government knew about earthquake risks on the West Coast. Those plants were designed to withstand them. But new surveying technology has revealed fault lines in the central and eastern states where plants were not designed for the serious stresses of a large quake.

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Vt. Nuclear Engineer Becomes International Star

From WPTZ.com:

As the world sits glued to the coverage of Japan's nuclear crisis, they will likely see Vermonter Arnie Gundersen among that coverage, speaking as an expert on nuclear energy.

Gundersen has done interviews nonstop since Monday, including 18 Tuesday alone. On Wednesday, a Japanese news crew flew in from New York City to interview Gundersen and hours later, he did a Skype interview with a Russian TV station out of Moscow.

"It's neat to be recognized, but what caused the recognition is the worst industrial accident in the history of the world," Gundersen said.

Gundersen has been outspoken about his belief that the nuclear crisis surpasses that of Chernobyl and Three Mile Island, perhaps accounting for the extreme media attention he has gotten.

"I don't think the (Japanese) government is lying. I do think the government is not telling everything it knows," Gundersen said in one interview Wednesday.

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Experts Had Long Criticized Potential Weakness in Design of Stricken Reactor

From the New York Times:

The warnings were stark and issued repeatedly as far back as 1972: If the cooling systems ever failed at a “Mark 1” nuclear reactor, the primary containment vessel surrounding the reactor would probably burst as the fuel rods inside overheated. Dangerous radiation would spew into the environment.

Now, with one Mark 1 containment vessel damaged at the embattled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant and other vessels there under severe strain, the weaknesses of the design — developed in the 1960s by General Electric — could be contributing to the unfolding catastrophe.

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Delay in Transmittal of Director's Decision


Your petition dated September 30, 2010 addressed to Stephen Burns, Office of the General Counsel, is currently being reviewed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission staff pursuant to 10 CFR 2.206 of the Commission's Regulations. This letter is to inform you that the due date for the final Director's Decision has been delayed from March 11, 2011, to May 13, 2011. The delay is necessary to complete the technical review and accommodate the required Petitioner/licensee draft Director's Decision review. NRC expects to provide you, and the licensee, the proposed Director's Decision by April 8, 2011, for your review and comment.

Please feel free to contact John Buckley at 301-415-6607 to discuss any questions related to this petition.


Larry W. Camper, Director
Division of Waste Management and Environmental Protection
Office of Federal and State Materials and Environmental Management Programs

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