Evacuating Three Mile Island:A Parent's Perspective

By Eric Epstein 

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 me 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 Gov. 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 sessiion, area residents fled the area not knowing if or when they would return. America now knew Central Pennsylvania 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 people; not hypothetical numbers that can be used for precise planning. 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 during the evacuation. My sister waited for my mom to pick her up at Linglestown Junior High School. My brother was in his first trimester. 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.

But 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 while dairy cows continued to graze in Etters, and the City of York, like Harrisburg and Lancaster, had no evacuation plan for a nuclear accident. 


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

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 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.