And Meltdown for Dessert

Three Mile Island By Mark Stephens Random House, $11.95

MIDDLETOWN, Pa--A 14-member crew explored the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor containment building today after plant officials said that unexpectedly high radiation levels had been found in the wall joints of a connecting building... Today marked the fifth time since the 1979 accident that the highly radioactive containment building had been entered... The teams took photographs, videotape recordings and radiation readings and edged closer than ever to the vessel containing the crippled reactor.

Associated Press, December 11, 1980

TIME WAS when the peaceful atom was hot news--the weeklies all ran cover stories on the magical power source that would be too cheap to meter. And week after week in the 1950s, as the first plants were built and tested, there were diagrams and articles to teach an ignorant but machine-obsessed audience how protons and such could tumble around and produce enough current to run every Osterizer across America until all the world's avocados had been turned into guacamole thrice over, all the clothes washed and dried faster than they could be soiled, all the cheese grilled in an endless array of toaster ovens.

Little was heard of nuclear power over the next 15 years. Careful observers may have picked up some rumblings of discontent from bearded scientists. Careful consumers probably noticed that the meter in the basement was not just spinning, but accelerating. But such is not the province of the news magazines.

It took a movement before Time and Newsweek returned their glossy gaze to nuclear power. Environmentalists saved a lot of trees and canyons in the early '70s; then they focused their attention on nuclear power, and pretty soon every imported car on the Eastern seaboard sported a blue and white "No Nukes" bumper sticker. Jane Fonda even made a movie.

What it really took, though, was a disaster. On March 28, 1979, in the wee hours, Three Mile Island Unit Two began to hemorrhage, and for the next five or six days, Pennsylvania was no place for the nervous. Reporters are a foolhardy bunch, however, and they swarmed, writing endless reams of copy that would be sent home and pasted under enormous headlines about "Nightmare in Pennsylvania." The best story since Jim Jones et al, started mixing the Koolaid.

Mark Stephens' account is a valuable reminder that Three Mile Island was more than a three-day sensation for the nation's press, and an invaluable restatement of the undeniable truth of the antinuclear movement. Whatever the truth about lowlevel radiation and the rest, there is a real possibility of failure, human or mechanical, risking a meltdown of a reactor core. With attendant disaster.

In places, the book is loaded with trivia like one of those accounts that emerges 96 hours after an event--"Rescue at Entebbe," perhaps. "Good afternoon, Hertz." "Uh, yes, this is Bernard Weiss of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Bethesda. There is a congressional delegation traveling to Harrisburg this afternoon. They'll need several cars waiting at the airport. Can you help me?" "I'm sorry sir. We have no cars available in Harrisburg."

Most of Stephens' detail is more to the point, though. His compilation is essentially a fuckup-by-fuckup account of what went wrong, and each goof is more chilling than the next. Consider the moments after a valve first failed and the "incident" began--operators feverishly leaf through Emergency Procedure (EP) notebooks, searching for a way to bring the reactor back to stability. The operators don't need a college degree, nor any training in engineering. They need to pass 14 hours of exams designed to test their knowledge of the EPs. Needless to say, no one had thought to design an EP for the accident unfolding at Three Mile Island.

Later, even once men with strings of degrees arrived on the scene, things were little better. A bubble of hydrogen formed near the dome of the reactor, and there was general fear that it might explode or expand enough to push away the reactor coolant and expose the core. Everyone worried, but no one knew what to do--as one NRC official said, "We have got every systems engineer we can find... thinking the problem, and they are not coming up with answers... We don't have a solution, but maybe we are coming up with one." And maybe not. As it turned out, the engineers did nothing for a week and the bubble finally disappeared.

While the engineers ruminated inside the plant, the public servants played politics outside, Stephens reports. No evacuation of the area surrounding the plant was ordered, in large part for fear of what "it would do to the industry." But Gov. Richard Thornburgh did advise small children and pregnant women to leave, mainly because he worried about the political repercussions of inaction. And all the while, Metropolitan Edison lied to the state, to the NRC and to the press.

Stephens insists in his prologue that the book is "meant to be neither" anti- or pro-nuclear, seemingly a baffling declaration of indecision for someone who has spent a year researching this accident. But perhaps his impartiality is only a sales pitch, for he adds a few lines later that "during the accident at Three Mile Island, a hundred thousand people were almost exposed to excessive doses of radiation, because men in power within both the private and public sectors, through fear, greed or incompetence, put politics, economics or pride before the public health and safety." When Stephens asks, "Is there a repair for reckless self-interest?" the answer seems depressingly obvious.

Not so clear, though, is why nuclear power has faded from the headlines--and hence from the public consciousness and political agenda--since Three Mile Island. It is not because the industry has been substantially reformed; reactors are still the property of robber baron utility executives. And it is not because Three Mile Island was a fluke-- the sporadic news clips from places like Indian Point in New York, Yankee in Vermont, and Millstone in Connecticut, prove that the threat is nationwide.

AMERICANS VIEW environmental questions as the dessert course of policy making-- something to deal with once the real problems are out of the way. Hence, when we are busy aiming for military superiority, busy trying to halt the spread of godless Communism through Latin America, busy worrying about four dozen stenographers in Tehran, we have no energy left over to worry about thyroid cancer and the chance of meltdown. Especially if addressing the problems of nuclear power would mean short-run worsening of "real problems" like inflation and dependence on foreign energy supplies. Especially if it would mean less electricity to run a nation of Betamaxes.

One might have thought Three Mile Island would be sufficient--after all, we came to the brink of meltdown, about 30 minutes away by most accounts. But it didn't scare America nearly enough. Nobody died at Three Mile Island, and that slogan is the measure of what it will take to stop nuclear power--a death, and since nuclear catastrophes are by nature all or nothing experiences, many deaths. Sooner or later, eastern Nevada, or central Mississippi, or even southern Massachusetts, will watch a valve fail and a core melt down. A lot of people will evacuate, but a lot will be stuck in traffic or be too stubborn to leave. And a lot will die, and everyone will vote for congressmen who promise to take firm action to close down nuclear plants. And Time and Newsweek will sell ten million copies apiece.