March 28, 1979 —Forty years ago this month, the people living near the Three Mile Island nuclear energy plant in Pennsylvania experienced a crisis that could have been a complete disaster. My own experience was devastating but it could have been much worse. It seems a proper time to revisit the incident.
My office was next door to the Pennsylvania Governor’s Mansion in Harrisburg. For several days, picketers lined the sidewalks with large placards warning that xenon gas was leaking into the atmosphere from the nuclear plant just down the river in Middletown.
My colleagues and I asked the activists what was going on, so they showed us the City Paper with a front-page article entitled: “Three Mile Island: Tomorrow’s Disaster.” This had been published a couple of months prior, but no one had paid any attention. The paper disclosed major security issues, such as teens banking their canoe on the shore of the facility, in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Chain link fencing was bashed down and people just randomly meandered around the buildings on a regular basis. Now they said the plant was in a crisis; locals began to realize the gravity of a possible meltdown in a heavily populated area and surrounded by possibly the most fertile agricultural soil in America.
My director came by with a clipboard to ask everyone where we were going when we evacuated. All pregnant women and vulnerable populations were to immediately leave the area. I was in my first trimester, so I called my husband who could not leave, sincehe was in the medical field and had to tend to patients.
Packing a small bag, I piled in the car and set out for Pittsburgh to stay with my Dad. Two roofers hollered to each other that they were supposed to get inside. The streets were vacant. Reality was settling in. A trooper pulled me over on the turnpike for speeding — I was in a daze. He didn’t ticket me but bawled me out — I finally broke down.
Passing all the orange roofs of Howard Johnson’s along the route, I would periodically stop for convenience. Every travel plaza was a bizarre sight of pregnant women silently lined up at the restrooms. I don’t think we even raised our faces to look at each other. It was like a war had broken out. We were in survival mode.
We waited out the emergency as the core melted. We followed the actions of the governor, president, and Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials. Engineers analyzed the situation and we all held our breath.
Upon returning home, I watched as my obstetrician was interviewed by Barbara Walters on the Today Show. He said he never saw so many miscarriages. Unfortunately, I lost my child and two more later. The doctor said they were not caused by the toxic gas, but it is not certain.
The health department did a study of pregnancies in connection with TMI, but the experimental design only included women within a 10-mile radius of the plant — just outside Harrisburg. All the women who lived in my city were not included in the findings, which revealed no causal effects. Officials admitted later to the flawed study.
Environmental concerns seem to only take on a concerned citizenry when there is a horrific situation. For example, Pennsylvania had the famous “inversion” in Donora which caused air pollution to hang trapped over the town in 1948, killing 20 people and affecting 6,000. They called it the Donora Death Fog.
DDT was finally banned for its overuse and misuse following a national outcry detailed in the book Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. It wasn’t so much that the health of insects, birds, wildlife, children and adults were endangered by this chemical but that the effect on the chromosomes of the generations to come, was the really scary issue. Have we lost track of why our government needed an Environmental Protection Agency?
Every generation must learn these lessons. I feel we need to be careful and vigilant to ensure that our beautiful country, its flora and fauna, will survive at least Seven Generations, as our Native American brothers and sisters warn.
It is chilling to me that we are not more mindful of the impact of nuclear energy within the context of weaponry, waste disposal, and its expansion for many uses. This experience was not a DVD, a book I read, a made-for-TV movie, or a rumor. It was very real, and if we are not responsible we will repeat our mistakes.
On the anniversary of Three Mile Island, please pause to reflect on how we can be better stewards of our Earth.