PSU Harrisburg looks back at TMI accident 35 years ago

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Thirty-five years after the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, Penn State Harrisburg is bringing together key people who managed the crisis to look back at what happened during those tense days and what lessons they learned.

Former Gov. Dick Thornburgh (R) gave the keynote address Thursday, recalling the “chilling” phone call he got the morning the crisis began, just 71 days into his first term as governor.

“The first and most important lesson for anyone in government to learn from an experience like this is expect the unexpected,” said Thornburgh.

In the days that followed that phone call, some people living in the area recall feelings of confusion and fear. They wondered whether they should leave and whether they were truly getting all the facts.

“It was a hopeless feeling,” said Paula Kinney, who live in Middletown during the crisis. “I was so naïve. And, I don’t want to be a Chicken Little, the sky is falling. But, I still don’t think that things are right.”

Exelon Corporation, which owns and operates Unit 1, says on its website, “Three Mile Island, like all U.S. nuclear energy facilities, is based on a ‘defense-in-depth’ design, which means there are redundant layers of safety. There are multiple layers of safety systems to provide water to the reactor core. These safety systems, and their backup safety systems, are powered by multiple and redundant power sources. Nuclear energy plants are built with multiple physical barriers, including thick, steel-reinforced concrete walls around the reactor to contain radioactive materials.”

As part of the two-day conference at PSU Harrisburg, an exhibit has opened with memorabilia including magazines that featured the incident and T-shirts people designed.

The conference focuses on lessons learned and efforts to mitigate a repeat of what happened.

“It was rather scary. I had no idea what was going on down at the plant. We had no disaster plan,” said Robert Reid, who had become mayor of Middletown only a couple months before the crisis.  “Anything man-made, you could always have a problem with. And, the things that we have in this area are man-made, or run by man. So, there’s always a chance that something could happen.”

According to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, decommissioning the site may not be finished until 2054, which would be the 75th anniversary of the accident.

Activists will hold a candlelight vigil Friday near the plant, including a moment of silence at 3:53 a.m. when the crisis began.

For more information on the conference, click here.