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How the Three Mile Island Accident Was Made Even Worse By a Chaotic Response

March 27, 2019 in History

By Erin Blakemore

For tellers at a Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania bank, the final days of March 1979 should have felt like business as usual. Instead, they were sheer chaos: customers piled up, trying to withdraw money in the days before ATMs.

“Customers were stopping by with their cars packed up to flee, withdrawing their cash,” recalled bank teller Bailey Brown in 2014. “One even showed me the diamond necklace she bought; she figured we were all going to die and she wouldn’t have to pay for it!”

Shrewsbury wasn’t under evacuation orders during the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. But people were evacuating from the town 40 miles away from the power station anyway. The response by local, state and national officials had been so alarming—and confusing—that the public didn’t know what to think.

Journalist and TV news broadcaster Walter Cronkite, anchor for the ‘CBS Evening News,’ reporting on the meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979.

The disaster itself was made worse by human error. And the botched public response was no different. During the tense days following the accident, conflicting reports and recommendations made it hard to know what to believe. Was the area on the verge of a China Syndrome-style catastrophe, or was it just fine to stay at home?

Today, the response to the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis is considered a textbook example of what not to do during an emergency. But before 4:00 a.m. on the morning of March 28, 1979, nobody had made adequate plans as to how to respond to an accident at the nuclear power plant. That morning, a chain reaction began inside one of Three Mile Island’s nuclear reactors. Due to a constellation of mechanical and human errors, the reactor’s automatic cooling system didn’t cool down the reactor as expected, and a partial meltdown occurred. For hours, the radioactive core of the reactor was left uncovered, causing radiation levels to spike throughout the facility.

It took until nearly 7:00 a.m. for reactor staff to notify local and state authorities about the situation, and at 7:24 a.m., an emergency was declared. But though officials had begun responding to what they considered to be an emergency, the outward-facing message downplayed the danger. The day after the partial meltdown occurred, an official from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) told the public the danger had passed. …read more

Source: HISTORY

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