TMI accident, 25 years later

SUN JOURNAL

Pennsylvania: Four who were there recall their experience when the country's worst nuclear disaster hit home.

March 27, 2004|By Dawn Fallik | Dawn Fallik,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Tom Richards retired from his job at Three Mile Island 10 years ago, but the nuclear power plant remains ever-present, shadowing his moves on the Sunset Golf Course, where he works as a groundskeeper.

Someday when the still-operating Unit 1 is closed and the complex razed, maybe people will stop asking about what happened in Middletown, Pa., during the early morning of March 28, 1979.

"It'll be just like Pearl Harbor - they won't know what happened at Three Mile Island and where it happened," he said.

Yet those memories still linger. Twenty-five years after the accident, America's closest brush with nuclear disaster looms large for the plant's neighbors and former workers, even as they focus on the future, not the past.

There is plenty to remember for people such as Richards and for a former Middletown resident, the mayor and a retired radiation inspector.

Richards, who worked at Unit 1 for more than 25 years, believes nuclear fuel is the energy of the future.

"I was surprised at how bad it was, but I was younger then and thought nothing could happen to me," he said.

Robert Reid, who was mayor of Middletown during the crisis and took the office again in 2002, said he feels safe again beneath the steam of Unit 1. Yet a Geiger counter remains in his office, sputtering sporadically.

John Garnish, whose home directly across from the plant became ground zero for reporters, left for Florida, more toward the sun than away from TMI. He harbors bitterness toward the reporters he feels abused his hospitality. And he worries about friends and family lost to cancer - fallout, he believes, from a still-contentious nuclear disaster.

"No one wrote about all the dead birds that I found, or how people would get a metallic taste in their mouths," he said. "The press were just a bunch of liars who wanted to use the telephone."

And Thomas Gerusky, former head of the Pennsylvania Bureau of Radiation Protection, who went on to help clean up some of the nation's most contaminated nuclear sites, wonders if there should be a future for nuclear fuel.

"I've got mixed emotions," he said. "Even working for the Department of Energy, it's hard to figure out whether we need nuclear plants or not."

Nestled among small islands that once held fishing shacks, Three Mile Island appears small and weary today, dressed in faded 1970s blue and beige.

For 25 years, only two of the hourglass cooling towers have waved the signature white steam flags. The other two stand empty, gray skeletal reminders of the nation's most dangerous nuclear disaster.

It began at 4 a.m. with a simple malfunction in a valve that drained water from the Unit 2 reactor. That led to a release of radiation - how much remains a matter of contention - a potentially explosive hydrogen bubble and the meltdown of 5 feet of the radioactive core.

Five days later, the nightmare ended with a visit from President Jimmy Carter, touring the plant in white plastic booties.

Since then, the plant, about 10 miles from Harrisburg, Pa., has been emptied of radioactive material, at a cost of a billion dollars and 10 years. A spokesman for TMI's new owner, First Energy Corp., refused requests to tour the plant, saying, "There is nothing there to look at."

Although he thought the accident was "overblown," Garnish said the plant had been bad news since it opened.

"They had contaminated the area long before the accident," he said. "They would do releases of gas - everyone would get a metallic taste in their mouths."

Garnish left for Florida in 1983, returned in 1988, and then left for good two years later.

"It was more the small-town feel that we couldn't get used to again," he said. "You could predict what everybody was going to do."

When he left, he took a dosimeter, which registers radiation, that had been put on the tree in his front yard. He said he did not remember what it registered anymore. "Our next-door neighbor died of liver cancer," Garnish said. "The man down the street died of brain cancer. My sister, she had breast cancer. It's just a farce that they're not reporting it."

When Garnish left Middletown, Reid was the mayor of the Dauphin County town. He is the mayor once again, having served from 1978 to 1994, and returning in 2002. The elementary school bears Reid's name, and he is a substitute teacher there from time to time.

Reid said it took 10 years after TMI for Middletown to feel "close to normal" again and that it is always on his citizens' minds. Every year at the high school, the football coach shows a documentary about the accident, and Reid talks afterward.

There have been changes, and they have been for the better.

"They know to be truthful to the people they're neighbors with," Reid says of the current TMI management. "If a siren goes off, I get a call. If a fish jumps out of the water onto the island, I get a call."

He occasionally brings a Geiger counter home with him - "sometimes I just want one around" - and Reid refuses to go to the Susquehanna River island that houses his worst fears.

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