Three Mile Island’s cooling towers stood like ivory rooks, silhouetted against the drab gray of February on a recent afternoon in Dauphin County.

The towers were airbrushed on the doors of Londonderry Township’s fire trucks, a hopeful image, with all four billowing plumes into the sky above the Susquehanna River. The towers haven’t looked that way since March 28, 1979, though, when one of the nuclear plant’s reactors suffered a partial meltdown, and families scrambled into their cars and fled or hid inside with their drapes closed.

“I can see the cooling towers from the upstairs window of my house,” resident John Ziats said. “When I look back on it, it was a time in my life that you’re just living your life and going about your business and something you have no control over happened, and as it progressed, it got scarier and scarier.”

The partial meltdown at TMI occurred at 4 a.m. that day 40 years ago. Bob Hauser was at work in Harrisburg and didn’t recall “a big hubbub” being made about the incident. At the time, he didn’t have a radio in his car.

“No one was talking about it,” Hauser, 69, recalled. “We were assured when the plant was built it would be safe.”

Hauser, married with two children, still went to work the next day. His then-wife stayed indoors at home in Middletown with the kids.

“My children don’t glow in the dark,” he joked.

Allen Myers, 63, recently retired from Three Mile Island, recalls his family moving out to a nearby farm to be safer. He wasn’t scared, though.

“The general public and the media blew it up bigger than it was,” he said.

Regardless of the media coverage, which was international, and the ongoing debate over whether TMI left anyone with lasting illnesses, Jeannie Dunaway said those spring days were unlike anything she ever experienced. Her family left for Connecticut the day President Jimmy Carter arrived to assuage fears.

“I still get anxious thinking about it,” said Dunaway, who is Ziats’ sister. “It was such a stressful time in our lives and those memories often come back.”

John Ziats, 66, and his sister Jeannie Dunaway, 63, at their Three Mile Island exhibit at the historical society in Middletown.
David Swanson / Staff Photographer
John Ziats, 66, and his sister Jeannie Dunaway, 63, at their Three Mile Island exhibit at the historical society in Middletown.

One afternoon last month historians were moving Three Mile Island artifacts into a museum in Middletown alongside sepia-toned photos of devastating fires and the Blue Raiders’ best football teams. Ominous magazine covers with “NUCLEAR ACCIDENT” in bold were perched in glass cases. Three Mile Island was the “most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history,” according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The damage, one nuclear expert said, was more psychological than physical.

“It was nowhere near a Chernobyl. It was nowhere near Fukushima,” said James Mahaffey, author of Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima.

For some, however, Three Mile Island is not simply history. A half-life remains, a belief that their health, along with the health of others they know, was directly compromised by the disaster in Londonderry, where TMI is located. The NRC said the two million people within a 50-mile radius of TMI Unit 2 were exposed to a dose of radiation equivalent to a chest X-ray, but in 2017, researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine found a possible correlation between the incident and thyroid cancers in surrounding counties.

Inside Middletown’s Moose Lodge along Swatara Creek, three people sitting at the bar said they had thyroid issues. They knew people who had thyroid issues too.

The voluntary evacuation

Two days after the accident, Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh, on the advice of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, advised the evacuation of pregnant women and preschool children within a five-mile radius of the facility. Residents within a 10-mile radius were advised to stay indoors. About 140,000 people fled the area in the next few days.

Staff Graphic

“Shut it down,” Dan Quaca, 72, said of Three Mile Island while smoking a cigarette.

Three Mile Island Unit 1, the surviving reactor that employs about 675 people, is set to close in September because it is losing money in a low-priced electricity market. Legislators recently introduced a $500 million plan to rescue the state’s nine reactors. TMI Unit 1 is in the most precarious financial condition.

In Kuppy’s Diner, a narrow throwback in Middletown, open since 1933, the owner waved off a reporter’s questions about the “legacy” of Three Mile Island. Employees of the plant sat at the counter, eating lunch. On another weekday morning, Christine Layman, an administrator of the Three Mile Island Survivors Facebook group, sat in a booth there, speaking in hushed tones.

She was living in Strinestown, York County, at the time of the incident, about 6.7 miles southwest of Three Mile Island as the crow flies. At the time, she had a daughter in preschool. A firefighter told her to throw a blanket over her daughter’s head and “get as far away as she could.” She wound up in Hanover, 26 miles south, and fears it wasn’t far enough.

“It was like something out of a horror movie,” she said. “No one knew what was going on. People outside of the area knew more about what was happening than we did."

The Facebook group has 3,700 members, many with a variety of cancers, neurological issues. "Just about everyone has thyroid issues,” Layman said.

“That’s why I started this group,” she said. “I want to change the history books. We were harmed. We are the proof we were harmed.”

Layman says she can’t drink out of a metal can without being reminded of the metallic taste in the air that day. She said she has thyroid issues but can’t handle the medication. Layman’s other maladies included brain lesions, memory problems, and fertility issues.

She says the Facebook group has its critics, people who would like the group to be quiet in light of what’s happening with the possible closure of Three Mile Island.

“Why would they bite the hand that feeds them?” she asked.

Several Middletown Council members declined to comment, and others could not be reached. Council member Jenny Miller said the closure of TMI is out of local hands. She fears the shuttering would hurt local restaurants and gas stations.

“Whether the plant remains open, or not, we just want to ensure that it is cleaned up properly,” she said. “It takes years to have it cleaned.”

Three Mile Island's four cooling towers depicted on fire apparatus in Londonderry Township.
Jason Nark / Staff
Three Mile Island's four cooling towers depicted on fire apparatus in Londonderry Township.

In Londonderry, Three Mile Island pays more than $900,000 in taxes each year to the township. It’s also the township’s biggest employer and a longtime benefactor to local youth groups and nonprofits. Old black-and-white photos of the plant hang on the walls in conference rooms in the fire department, along with banners for the annual golf outing TMI hosts to raise money for the fire department.

“That golf outing actually pays for all of this,” said Fire Chief Bart Shellenhamer, a township supervisor.

In the days after the partial meltdown, Shellenhamer said, the fire department helped alert residents, urging them to evacuate. He estimates TMI has raised more than $600,000 for the fire department in the decades that followed.

“The municipality will lose money. The fire department will lose money. The school district will lose money,” he said. “It’s a big loss.”

By comparison, the fire department’s Lenten fish fries would raise up to $30,000 over seven Fridays. (The fish, Shellenhamer noted, are not caught locally.)

This March 30, 1979, photo shows a cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg as it looms behind an abandoned playground.
BARRY THUMMA / AP File
This March 30, 1979, photo shows a cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg as it looms behind an abandoned playground.

What happened, beginning at 4 a.m. on Wednesday, March 28, 1979:

Partial meltdown

The accident at TMI resulted only in a partial meltdown, which did not breach the containment structure.

A full meltdown is when the nuclear fuel in the reactor core overheats to the point that it melts through its containment structure and into the surrounding environment.

Elapsed time:

00:00:00

The main feedwater pump shuts down, preventing a steam generator in the

reactor building from removing heat.

00:00:02

Water pressure and temperature in the reactor core begin to rise.

00:00:03

The relief valve automatically opens to release excess steam. The valve should

have closed in about 10 seconds. Instead, it malfunctioned and remained open,

allowing coolant to pour out and causing the reactor core to overheat.

Instruments in the control room incorrectly indicate that the valve had closed.

00:00:09 The control rods automatically lower, slowing the nuclear

reaction.

01:20:00 Operators in the control room did not know they were facing a

“loss-of-coolant accident,” due to incorrect and contradictory readings. They

take measures to reduce the flow of coolant in the core, making conditions

worse.

02:15:00 Due to the loss of coolant, the top of the reactor core becomes

exposed. Steam already present becomes superheated and reacts with the

control rods, producing hydrogen and other radioactive gases. The relief valve is

still open, releasing the radioactive gases along with the steam into the

containment vessel. The fuel in the core begins melting, with temperatures

reaching 4,300 degrees.

02:45:00 Radiation alarms sound. Fifteen minutes later, a general emergency

is declared. The radiation level within the containment vessel reaches 10,000

millirems — a level that is fatal with only a few minutes’ exposure. Exposure from

a full set of chest X-rays is about 6 millirems.

15:00:00 The firm that designed TMI tells the control-room operators to get

coolant flowing through the core again. Operators restart the pumps that had

been shut down. The temperature and pressure in the reactor stabilize.

Two days later, some engineers are concerned that a large hydrogen bubble in

the containment vessel could explode, potentially causing a full meltdown.

Experts later conclude that the bubble could not explode due to a lack of

oxygen. The bubble is slowly bled from the system.

A month later, Unit 2 is shut down.

Three years later, a robotic camera lowered into the reactor core shows that

half of the core had melted down.

Partial meltdown

The accident at TMI resulted only in a partial meltdown, which did not breach the containment structure.

A full meltdown is when the nuclear fuel in the reactor core overheats to the point that it melts through its containment structure and into the surrounding environment.

Elapsed time:

00:00:00

The main feedwater pump shuts down, preventing a steam generator in the

reactor building from removing heat.

00:00:02

Water pressure and temperature in the reactor core begin to rise.

00:00:03

The relief valve automatically opens to release excess steam. The valve should

have closed in about 10 seconds. Instead, it malfunctioned and remained open,

allowing coolant to pour out and causing the reactor core to overheat.

Instruments in the control room incorrectly indicate that the valve had closed.

00:00:09 The control rods automatically lower, slowing the nuclear

reaction.

01:20:00 Operators in the control room did not know they were facing a

“loss-of-coolant accident,” due to incorrect and contradictory readings. They

take measures to reduce the flow of coolant in the core, making conditions

worse.

02:15:00 Due to the loss of coolant, the top of the reactor core becomes

exposed. Steam already present becomes superheated and reacts with the

control rods, producing hydrogen and other radioactive gases. The relief valve is

still open, releasing the radioactive gases along with the steam into the

containment vessel. The fuel in the core begins melting, with temperatures

reaching 4,300 degrees.

02:45:00 Radiation alarms sound. Fifteen minutes later, a general emergency

is declared. The radiation level within the containment vessel reaches 10,000

millirems — a level that is fatal with only a few minutes’ exposure. Exposure from

a full set of chest X-rays is about 6 millirems.

15:00:00 The firm that designed TMI tells the control-room operators to get

coolant flowing through the core again. Operators restart the pumps that had

been shut down. The temperature and pressure in the reactor stabilize.

Two days later, some engineers are concerned that a large hydrogen bubble in

the containment vessel could explode, potentially causing a full meltdown.

Experts later conclude that the bubble could not explode due to a lack of

oxygen. The bubble is slowly bled from the system.

A month later, Unit 2 is shut down.

Three years later, a robotic camera lowered into the reactor core shows that

half of the core had melted down.

SOURCE: Nuclear Reglatory Commission
Staff Graphic