One. It's March 30th, 1979, Dick Thornburgh sits behind his desk staring at a jumble of wires and brass plates, he watches a utility worker hunched over this tangled mess. Thornberg stands up and with a scowl, he starts to pace around the office. Thornburgh is the governor of Pennsylvania. And for the past 45 minutes, his staff has been trying to clear a phone line so he can speak with President Jimmy Carter. The president could help avert the growing crisis at Three Mile Island.
He has an army of experts and endless resources. But to tap into those resources first, Thornburgh actually needs to get Carter on the phone. And that's proving to be incredibly difficult. It seems like every resident in Harrisburg is on the phone making calls to worried friends and family, and that means the entire city has become one giant busy signal.
That's why the utility workers in the office, amid a tangle of wires and tools, it's hoped that soon Thornburgh may be able to break through the jammed phone lines and get a connection to the White House. Thornberg rubs his temples as he paces the office waiting. It's been only two days since Three Mile Island declared a general emergency, but already so much has happened. Thornberg set in motion a small scale evacuation for pregnant women and children.
Seemed like a prudent conservative measure, but as far as he can tell, this only made the situation worse.
Residents began to flee the area, and Thornber can sense that fear is spreading across the region with the increasing concerns, Thornberg is now under pressure to make an even bigger decision whether to issue a broad evacuation. Thornberg knows that an evacuation order could profoundly impact the region. It's a heavy load that's been weighing on his soul, and that's why Thornberg desperately wants to get on the phone with the president. He needs assistance and he needs it now. Right, then an aide pokes his head through a door and gives a thumbs up.
The president of the United States is on line three. Thornberg leans forward to pick up the phone, a friendly voice comes over the line. Governor Thornburgh, it's Jimmy Carter. How are you holding up?
Mr. President, thank you so much for calling. I wish I could give you a positive answer, but to be honest, I've been better. The same goes for the whole state of Pennsylvania.
I can imagine my team and I have been following the situation. I want you to know that I'm making every possible resource available. So right now, what would you say is your primary need? Thornberg looks down at the newspaper on his desk with a time when it's black and white image of Three Mile Island. Sir, we need information. Lieutenant Governor and I have gotten all kinds of contradictory assessments. Medad, Babcock and Wilcox, even the NRC itself, they're all telling us different things and then they reverse their statements.
So, Mr. President, I'd like to be frank, but I don't want to make any enemies here, not please be honest. Situation calls for Thornburgh pauses. He knows he has to be careful. This is the president of the United States, because right now's not the time to pretend that everything's OK. Well, to be blunt, I've lost faith in these so-called experts. Our lines are so tight up that I can hardly even reach the NRC.
And when I do one minute's pie in the sky, all is safe. Then the next moment I get the sense I need to evacuate everyone. Now Carter remains quiet and for a moment, Thornburgh worries he may have overstepped. But then Carter speaks. You know, I came up through the Navy and then I'm familiar with nuclear power. And even still, I'm often left scratching my head with all these expert opinions. I bet you just want someone who can be honest and direct.
Yes, Mr. President, because I need to decide whether to evacuate. I've got to decide soon. And if we are doing it, I'll need to determine the evacuation radius. If it's 20 miles out from Three Mile Island, that means moving more than 600000 people. There's a lot that could go wrong. Tell you what, I'm going to send you on someone you can trust. He'll be on sign. He's the best man I've got without health, sir.
That's exactly what I need. And also, we'll be in touch soon. Thornburgh hangs up the phone and leans back in his chair, his heart is pounding in his chest. He finally realizes just how tense he's been talking on the phone with the most powerful person in the world. But then Thornburgh feels his heartbeat slowing down, his shoulders and arms relaxing. Finally, he's getting the help he needs. Someone he can trust is coming to Pennsylvania and can make sense of this crisis.
Nuremberg only hopes that the person will arrive soon because Thornburgh knows they're almost out of time. Things aren't normal right now, so it's understandable if you're feeling off center, but if it's more than that, if your own feelings are overwhelming you. It's time to talk better. Help is there for you. Better help will assess your needs and match you with your own licensed professional therapist, someone you can begin communicating with in under 48 hours. It's not a crisis line.
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On March 28, 1979, engineers lost control of Three Mile Island, a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. The nuclear reactors, uranium core was uncovered and radioactive gases began seeping out. For the first time ever, the plant's operators were forced to call a general emergency. By day's end, it seemed that the plant was finally back under control. But just 24 hours later, new alarms rang out in the control room. More radiation leaks had been detected and a massive bubble of hydrogen was now filling the reactor.
That hydrogen threatened to cause an explosion in the reactor, which could lead to a meltdown as the engineers raced to stabilize the plant. Government officials searched desperately for concrete facts they could rely on. Finally, President Jimmy Carter stepped in to reassure the public and help tame the nuclear reactor. This is episode three. Fight or flight. It's Friday, March 30th, at around 2:00 p.m., the countryside in southern Pennsylvania is quiet and breezy on this early spring day.
The sun is finally out and a goldfinch lands on a tree branch, but the bird suddenly darts away as a roaring engine approaches the skies filled with a rapid thumping and a green and white Marine helicopter swoops down over a nearby cornfield. Inside the helicopter, Harold Denton gazes at the nearby cooling towers of Three Mile Island. The nuclear power plant rises ominously over the horizon, and Denton knows that it's his job to put an end to this crisis once and for all.
Denton works in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency that oversees nuclear power plants. He directs the agency's Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation. And just this morning, President Jimmy Carter gave Denton an order. Carter instructed him to head to Pennsylvania to serve as the president's envoy and lead the government's response to the disaster at Three Mile Island. As Denton stares out at the nuclear power plant, he knows that this is the most important task of his entire life.
Thousands of lives are at stake, and he's now serving the most powerful person in the world. And he knows that the crisis is mounting and nothing about this job would be easy. Soon, the helicopter makes its descent towards Three Mile Island there on the ground below him, Denton spotted a group of men in suits waiting for his arrival. The men shield their eyes as the chopper touches down. Denton steps out of the helicopter right away. He can see that the men are staring at him, shooting him.
Puzzled expressions. Denton knows that they've been waiting for a knight in shining armor, and with his long nose and oversized ears, he hardly looks the part. Still, sometimes that can be used to his advantage. Denton shakes hands with the men and turns a jack turbine. An executive at the company that owns Three Mile Island Turbine says they've prepared a makeshift office at a nearby residents and they should head there now. Denton and her band walk side by side, and her bone runs through the timeline of recent events.
He discusses the problems with the plants, feed water pumps, and he explains that the plant suffered a major loss of coolant after an emergency valve stuck open. Denton is about to speak, but her mind cuts him off. He tells Denton that his goal is to bring the plant to a cold shutdown as quickly and smoothly as possible. And he doesn't want any outside interference. Her mind shoots Denton a cold look and says that with all due respect, he's concerned that Denton will slow down this process.
Denton gives a friendly smile and without breaking eye contact, he gives her Byrn his sense of the current situation. It's simple, Denton says. Up until now, Metropolitan Edison was in charge. It bears the responsibility for everything that's gone wrong, and their miscommunication is making things worse by the hour. Denton stops walking and the rest of the group stops to stare at Denton as he waits to speak, Denton then explains how they're going to move forward. He says that President Carter has chosen him and him alone to plot the way forward.
From now on, Ed will answer to him. Jack, her mind opens his mouth to respond, but Denton interrupts him. He informs her mind that he has plenty of experience being challenged by utility executives. He knows how to make their lives hell and he knows how to help them. It's really their choice. Her being is silent for a moment, his face frozen. Then he slowly nods, and Denton gives another good natured smile and adds that he recently learned about a new problem at the plant a massive bubble of hydrogen building up in the reactor, which could ultimately lead to a meltdown.
And right now, it's time to come clean. It's time for her mind to tell him everything. Later that evening, Bill Scranton stands at the top of a marble staircase in the lobby of the state capitol building right now, the lieutenant governor is waiting for the arrival of Harold Denton.
Denton is the expert who President Carter sent to Pennsylvania to help with all the decisions surrounding Three Mile Island.
Scranton is supposed to escort Denton to speak with the governor, but as he waits on the staircase, Scranton starts to lose his patience. It's been a long day.
For hours, he and Governor Thornburgh were on the phone with the state's mayors. The two sides went back and forth as they ironed out the details of a potential evacuation. But those weren't the only call Scranton had to take. He's also been going in circles with the people. A Three Mile Island and trying to get reliable updates felt like a nightmare every time Three Mile Island changes its status. Scranton has yet another round of discussions with the mayors. Harold Denton is supposed to be some kind of savior.
A hero will put an end to this crisis. But Scranton snorts. He doubts any one person can save the day at Three Mile Island, though tonight he does want to get a read on Denton and see whether he is a reliable source. A moment later, Scranton gets his first opportunity as a man and a rumpled brown suit comes trudging up the stairs, waving. Oh. Just when you think you're coming up in the world, the universe humbles you by making you climb stairs.
Wow, those are something anyway. Hi, I'm Harold Denton. Denton holds out his hand, Scranton raises an eyebrow and stares. This is Carter's envoy. He thinks he doesn't look much like a savior or like a worn down bureaucrat. Scranton tries to set aside his first impression and reaches out for a handshake. Mr. Dentin. Bill Scranton, Lieutenant Governor. Mr. Scranton, you're an unlucky man. You've been in office. Watch just a little over three months.
You wasted no time on getting a doozy on your hands. You know, that's very true. And before we speak to the governor about this doozy, would you mind if you and I chat for a moment?
I'd like to make my own assessment of the facts. Denton smiles. I bet you want to see just how full of hot air. Yeah, that's absolutely fine.
You know, I've also spoken to Medad into Babcock and Wilcox as well. And I get it. You've been hearing nothing but mixed messages. I think I can help you sort them out. Hmm. Good. Well shall we. Scranton leads the way as the two walk through an empty hallway, dentin gazes across the marble columns and golden surfaces, and he turns back to Scranton with a look of intense focus. So, Mr. Scranton, I've got good news and bad news.
The good news first, Metropolitan Edison finally pull its head out of the clouds. They're now taking this situation very seriously and they're giving us control of our announcements to the press.
So that's the good news. The bad news is that the situation at the plant remains serious.
Tell me what serious means, preferably in simple English, please. Well, to start with, the reactor core was uncovered. It was part mechanical failure, part human error.
The damage is significant. A portion of the core, we're not sure how much it has melted and remains very, very hot.
Our priority is to bring that heat down as quickly as possible so that we can safely contain the plant. OK, so what's stopping you? Well, here's the challenge.
There's a bubble within the reactor that's made of hydrogen and it's blocking our ability to pump coolant into the core. We can't inject anything so long as it's filling up air space in the reactor. Scranton furrows his eyebrows. Hydrogen that explosive, right? Yes. Theoretically, hydrogen is explosive if enough oxygen is present. But right now that's not the case. Even if it were, the explosion would be contained within the reactor vessel. It wouldn't be like a bomb, but it could still cause the core to uncover Superheat go into meltdown.
Well, that sounds like we need to start an evacuation. And the only question then is how big of an evacuation are we talking about? Danson shakes his head, Now, you don't need to evacuate. The bubble is a challenge for sure, but it's a solvable one. Look, there isn't enough oxygen in that. There's not enough for the hydrogen to be explosive and there won't be for many, many days. Right now, here's what we got to do.
We need to minimize the rumors and the panic, not amplify them. At the same time, we'll fix this hydrogen problem. It's not going to kill us, I promise you. Denton smiles and for what feels like the first time, the last two days, Scranton feels completely at ease. He trusts this man. He has a gut feeling that Denton is honest and more important, that he's right. Everything. A Three Mile Island is under control.
So Scranton claps Anton on the shoulder and leads him towards the governor's office. He's happy to have found this beacon in the midst of such a fierce storm. Just hopes that this time his trust is well placed.
It's early Saturday morning on March 31st in Bethesda, Maryland, young man hurries along a brightly lit hallway at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. His beard is ragged and his eyes are bloodshot. Anyone who walks by him can tell he's been up all night again. The man is named Roger Mattsson, and right now he's rushing as fast as he can back to his office. He needs to get to his phone and make a call that could save lives. Mattson is a systems safety director with the NRC.
Though he looks disheveled, Mattson has a reputation as a brilliant engineer. He's known for his tireless work ethic, and that's partly why he was assigned to consider a staggering problem. The chair of the NRC has asked him to figure out how quickly oxygen is increasing inside Three Mile Island. Not only that, Mattson was also asked to determine the risk of a hydrogen explosion in the nuclear reactor. Since being given the task, Mattson has been working nonstop. He's been poring over data making calls to physicists and labs.
And the prognosis doesn't look good. He just got off the phone with several advisers. And as he feared, these experts believe that oxygen levels in the plant are increasing rapidly. Soon, the hydrogen inside the reactor could be ready to explode. As he wandered through the hallway and turns a corner nearly collides with a safety inspector, Mann starts to say something, but Mattsson races past him without saying a word. He has no time for apologies, at least not for this man.
The truth is, Mattsson blames himself in large part for what happened at Three Mile Island. He oversaw nuclear safety regulations. And that means to Mattsson, the crisis at Three Mile Island is his fault, and now it's his responsibility to fix it. Mattson pushes open a door and head straight to his desk. It's littered with charts, graphs and blueprints. He shuts them aside and reaches for the phone. He has to issue a warning and quickly, because Mattson believes a Three Mile Island faces an imminent threat.
If hydrogen explodes in the nuclear core, the core will collapse in on itself. 20 tons of uranium will burn through the bottom of the reactor vessel. It could keep sinking and come in contact with underground water, at which point the water will vaporize and shoot up geysers of radiation. Everyone within 50 miles of the plant could be under immediate threat of radiation exposure. That's in his checked the map. That's some two and a half million people. Mattson knows he must speak with Harold Denton to convince his boss to start evacuations right away.
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Here he finds his team of engineers all sitting around a long table in shirtsleeves and ties. The group is silent. They're studying the designs for Three Mile Island and trying to figure out what kind of threat the nuclear power plant may currently face. Denton sits down beside them and reviews a diagram of the reactor core. Denton is an expert in nuclear energy and runs an office in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. That's the federal agency that oversees nuclear power plants. Still, no matter how much of an expert he may be, Denton needs to learn Three Mile Island inside out because soon he's expecting a call from Pennsylvania's governor, Dick Thornburgh.
Thornburgh is relying on him to give sound advice, advice that the governor is depending upon as he decides whether to evacuate large portions of Pennsylvania. Without a doubt, Thornburgh is still getting conflicting messages about the power plant. Some say it's an imminent hazard that could wreak havoc on the public's health for hundreds of miles. But right now, Denton knows that cooler heads must prevail and that he needs to be a voice of reason.
A moment later, a phone rings, Denton crosses into the empty living room to answer it. Oh, this is Harold Denton. Denton is Dick Thornburgh. Afternoon, Governor. I wanted to give you some positive updates, and I wanted to go over some brand new concerns that I have. Let me guess, you are just getting an earful from Roger Mattsson in Bethesda. There's a pause as Thornburgh weighs his words. Yes, actually, I just got off a call with him.
Mattsson seems to think that we should evacuate everyone within 20 miles of the plant and that this should have happened two days ago. Yeah, understatement is not one of Roger's vices. And what's your thought on this matter? And believes the reactor is a ticking time bomb. He says it could put us in a catastrophic situation.
Denton takes a supervised. He looks out the window outside the large cooling towers of Three Mile Island loom over the skyline. Sir Roger Mattson is one of my top technical advisors. I've heard his report. It's sober listening to be sure. And while he's an excellent engineer, he's 100 miles south of us in Bethesda. I don't believe he has the full understanding of the situation. Well, so who does? We can't delay this anymore. We need to make a decision.
Well, Governor Thornburgh, I have far greater trust in a man named Victor Stello. He's my technical adviser on site and he has a different take on the situation. Your man there doesn't think three miles reactors going to face some sort of explosion. No, he doesn't, according to his calculations. There isn't enough oxygen in the reactor. There's no significant threat from that hydrogen bomb. In the silence that follows, Denton can hear the crackle of the phone line.
I want you to be perfectly clear. You believe this situation is under control because you understand the consequences, right, if we get this wrong? Yes, of course I do. And yet you do not think I should call an evacuation? Well, look, this is your decision. Whatever you order stands. But no one in this residence, myself included, no one has any inclination to leave right now. I can see the towers at Three Mile Island.
I feel safe. We feel safe. And I believe that evacuating hundreds of thousands of people for no defensible reason would be the true disaster. Thornberg sighs. And then his voice grows steely with resolve. Very good, Harold. Thank you for your candor. I'll be in touch shortly. Danton hangs up the phone. He leans back in his chair and stares out the window at the enormous towers of Three Mile Island, this power plant has caused panic unlike any this region has ever seen.
Families have fled. Residents worried they're being poisoned. Danton knows that if he's wrong, the consequences couldn't be greater. But he believes he's doing right by the government, by the people of Pennsylvania. Still, though, he wants to be absolutely positive. And so Denton stands and returns to the dining room table. He'll review the numbers with Stello one more time. At around 11 o'clock that night, Lieutenant Governor Bill Scranton walks toward the pressroom inside the Pennsylvania state capitol as he enters the room he finds are filled beyond capacity with TV crews and journalists.
And now the reporters aren't just from New York and D.C. Even the major dailies in Europe and Asia have sent reporters here, if it wasn't clear already. All eyes are on Harrisburg and Three Mile Island. Scranton makes its way through the crowd and the tension in the room feels thick. Residents and reporters want to know whether Governor Thornburgh is going to call for a full evacuation. Of course, many residents aren't waiting on the official word. More than 100000 of them have voluntarily left the area already fleeing to hotel rooms and makeshift shelters.
Scranton knows they have a right to feel scared. Three Mile Island continues to loom as a menacing threat.
It doesn't help that. Just a few hours earlier, a news outlet reported that inside Three Mile Island, a bubble of hydrogen is close to exploding. A moment later, Scranton steps to the dais and takes the position behind the governor, the two men wait for the chatter in the room to die down. Thornburgh begins the press conference and says he appreciates the frustration that everyone's feeling. The media and the public have been on a roller coaster, getting one piece of contradictory information.
After the next, Thornburgh pauses and steadies his voice, and then he announces that he has a definitive update. Three Mile Island is not at risk. It's currently being shut down safely. And that's why he will not be calling for an evacuation. There are several murmurs and low gasps, but Thornburgh presses on. He says that he has the utmost trust in Harold Denton. Denton is a nuclear expert and President Carter's envoy to the area. In a moment, Denton will answer their questions.
But first, Thornburgh says he has one more important piece of news. Tomorrow, President Carter himself will be visiting Three Mile Island. Standing on the side of the dais, Scranton can immediately feel a shift in the room, the reporters suddenly seem to be at ease. And for Scranton, it makes sense why. If Carter is coming, then Three Mile Island must truly be safe. Scranton is confident that Carter's presence will calm the residents to still with all the back and forth.
Scranton can't help but remain unsettled. Harold Denton could be wrong. The crisis at Three Mile Island could be far from over. And if something happens to the president, the country could face an even greater crisis. It's late morning on April 1st and now four days since the crisis began to unfold at Three Mile Island, Harold Denton walks across an empty tarmac at the Harrisburg International Airport, shaves his eyes. He looks out toward the horizon. So far, there's no sign of the presidential helicopter, but Jimmy Carter should be arriving soon for Denton.
This is one of the most important moments in his work here so far, even if it is just symbolic. His job today is to join the president and the first lady on a tour of Three Mile Island. Together, they'll head into the belly of the beast and show the nation that it's really no monster after all. Denton believes that the nuclear power plant is safe, that there is no need to evacuate the public, and that this nightmare will soon be behind them.
He's going to relay this message to President Carter. And together they'll take a crucial step in restoring the public's calm and preventing any more panic. Denton, here's a whining engine approaching, but when he turns and looks for the helicopter, he's surprised to find something else entirely. A green Saab comes racing through a distant gate and heading toward the tarmac at high speed. Denton feels himself tense up. Right now, he's surrounded by police and Secret Service agents nearby.
Here, the governor and the lieutenant governor. The car tires squeals as it races toward them. Denton closes his eyes. If he does something terrible and violent is about to happen. Secret Service agents shout their hands, go to their holsters. Just then the sob screeches to a halt. Man with wild eyes and a ragged beard jumps out and can't believe his eyes. It's his technical adviser, Roger Mattsson. Denton shouts to the Secret Service agents and tells them to stand down.
Everything is fine, but judging by the look on Mattsson face, suddenly Denton isn't so sure. Mattsson doesn't even close the door to his car. He simply charges up to Denton and begins speaking at a rapid clip. Mattson says that Denton's other adviser, Victor Stello, is wrong. His calculations are off. The hydrogen in the nuclear reactor is explosive. They have to take action now. They have to send orders to the president to turn around to head back to DC and they must begin to evacuate residents.
Denton feels his skin crawling, he turns to look at Stella, who stands nearby, his face turning a crimson red. Before Denton can speak, Stello begins to shout. He accuses Mattson of being an alarmist and says it's people like Mattsson who are causing panic. The two continue to trade insults and dentin glances toward the governor and the lieutenant governor. Both are staring open mouthed at the scene. Tenten can see their confidence evaporating. He feels woozy that the ground is sinking underneath his feet.
He knows he needs to take action. He needs to stop this fighting to re-establish order.
But before he can say a word, he hears a loud beating sound approaching. Denton turns and looks out at the cloudy sky. There he sees a helicopter. Peter with the words United States of America. It slows down and descends onto a ramp, blowing back the hair and clothes of everyone assembled. The group grows quiet, and a minute later, President Jimmy Carter emerges. The president gives a quick wave by his side as first lady Rosalynn Carter. Denton takes a deep breath.
This is the crucial moment he trusts what Stella's told him at Three Mile Island is safe that the president has nothing to fear if he wants to tour the plant and that the residents can all rest easy knowing that the crisis is over. The operators at Three Mile Island have slain the monster, but Denton also knows he has an obligation to lay out both perspectives for the president. After that, he is unsure which way things will go. If Carter believes Mattsson, everyone will reboard the helicopter and depart.
He can only imagine the panic that would ensue. The president flies away instead of touring the plant, but on the other hand, the president may decide to stay, in which case Denton must be sure that Victor Stello is right, that the crisis is contained. Because if steller was wrong, this difficult situation could grow much, much worse. American scandal is sponsored by upstart, you know how compound interest works, right? Save some money now, earn interest tomorrow and earn interest on the interest every day after that.
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Mike Pantech stands waiting a notebook in hand. He's tired, but he's not ready to go home and rest. Not yet, because right now he has to report on a crucial event and share it with all his listeners. His reporting could lift their spirits and give them hope about the days to come. Pantech is the news director at KBIO, the local radio station. He recently aired an interview with dire warnings about the accident at Three Mile Island. He heard firsthand how residents could be exposed to harmful radiation.
Still, Pantech decided to stay in the area. He knew he had an obligation to stay both as a journalist and a resident. And now with officials saying the crisis is over, Pantech wants to make sure to document the event so residents can come together and celebrate. Pantech glances to his left other local stand beside him, lining the route to Three Mile Island. They're all hoping to catch a glimpse of the president of the United States. Tech just down a few notes for a later broadcast, and he checks his watch presidential convoys late, Jimmy Carter should have already passed by on his way to tour the nuclear facility.
The delay is making Pantech nervous. Maybe the president knows something that no one else does. Maybe Carter got a warning that the area was not safe. Pentax mind starts churning. Maybe he shouldn't really be here. Neither should any of these other residents. Pantech feels estab of worry as he looks back at the crowd. He sees a woman in a housecoat holding an old dog in her arms. Two construction workers stand nearby. Alongside them, a young couple went silently holding hands.
Pantech can see that all of their faces are pale and worn. The anxiety of these past four days has taken its toll. A few minutes later, Pantech notices the construction worker starting to back away from the crowd. He checks his watch again. Looks like the residents of Middletown have been abandoned. But just then, shots come up from the road, Pantech leans out to look up at the bend, there's a wave of hands going up into the air, and then suddenly he spots a yellow school bus rumbling down River Road, flanked by several sleek black cars.
As the bus approaches Pantech and see Jimmy Carter himself leaning out from one of the windows, the president is waving and smiling. The crowd explodes around Pantech, cheering and waving right back. As the bus passes, Pantech finds himself waving to and he's surprised a few tears in his eyes. The president of the United States is here in solidarity. Carter is with them. Pantech looks around at the crowd. The forlorn expressions have vanished, replaced by excited smiles.
He spent four long days alternating between frustration and fear. Now, finally, Mike Pantech feels hope, and soon he'll head back to the station and share those feelings with all of his listeners. It's time that the people of southern Pennsylvania had a reason to rejoice. 30 minutes later, Governor Dick Thornburgh leans forward and ties a pair of yellow plastic booties over his shoes, Thornburgh is inside the guardhouse of Three Mile Island and as he ties the knot, he watches full of nerves as an eerie scene unfolds before him.
Technicians are attaching radiation monitoring badges to Bill Scranton and Harold Denton. Then they move on and attach the badges to President Carter and the first lady. Thornburgh can't shake his anxious feelings. Earlier today, President Carter received another briefing on the crisis at Three Mile Island. He listened intently and considered the possibility that a hydrogen bubble could explode in the reactor vessel and even lead to a nightmare scenario. Yet the president said he'd made up his mind if he boarded his helicopter and left.
That would send an unambiguous message to the region. It would be a message of fear and panic. And Carter said that's not why he came here. He wants to reassure the population, not make the situation worse. So that's why Thornberg, Carter and the others are here at Three Mile Island. They're about to see the power plant up close. Once they're ready, the technicians lead the group out of the guard room. They walk across the yard toward the large steel building where the unit to control room is located.
The president falls back to walk alongside former. You're not happy that I stuck around, are you, Mr. President? It's not a question of my happiness and concern for your safety. Carter nods, and the group arrives at a steel door leading into the control building. Carter holds it open for thornber. Mr. President, I wish we had more certainty in this situation. The facts still feel blurry and the stakes are far too high for that. You've all the right concerns.
But listen, I trust Harold Denton and I trust his team's understanding of this whole situation. But more important than that, the people of Pennsylvania need us. They need to see that we're standing strong and we're not giving in to fear. I believe that should override any hesitation. I can appreciate that. I know you can't. Your concern for your people is obvious. As the men step into the control room, Carter turns, looks Thornburgh in the eye.
There will be a lot of questions to answer here when all is said and done, but your leadership won't be one of them. Now, if you'll excuse me. The president then steps forward and meets with members of the press, Thornberg stands alone for a minute, taking in the cavernous control room with its rows of flashing lights and gauges and dials. For a moment, he feels overwhelmed by the complexity of all these machines. And he struck with a sinking feeling as he considers a horrible suffering that this power plant could have inflicted on so many residents.
Maybe still can. But then there's a bright pop of a camera flash. Thornberg looks up and sees the president and the first lady touring the control room. News photographers follow behind them. The couple appears calm and unhurried. Something shifts inside thornber for days. He'd had a gnawing feeling of dread when it seemed to creep up on him, even in his sleep. But now, with the president before him, Thornburgh feels he can let down his guard.
He knows he's in good hands and so are the residents of Pennsylvania. It's April 27th, about four weeks later, Gary Miller leans against the back wall, the unit to control room, a Three Mile Island. Miller, the plant supervisor, is joined by Bill Zui, the graveyard shift operator. Alarms are finally silent in the control room, but that doesn't mean it's all quiet. Today, the room is noisy and packed with government officials and scientists familiar.
It seems like every major figure in the nuclear industry has been shoehorned into the space. Miller looks at seewhy he worries about him. Mann's confidence seems deeply shaken. Miller knows that many place to blame for this disaster on himself and zwi in addition to the other operators on duty that terrible Wednesday morning. Miller knows he'd make mistakes. He took measures that were supposed to help prevent a crisis, but instead he only made matters worse. But Miller thinks many people have drawn the wrong conclusions.
Roger Mattson thought there could be an explosion in the reactor. It turns out he was wrong. President Carter was still touring the plant when Roger Mattson and Victor Stello found the problem that there was a flaw in Mattson's calculations. They were all just lucky the governor hadn't ordered a full-scale evacuation for Mathoura.
As Miller looks out across the room and all the nuclear experts, he thinks about mistakes and human error, he can accept that people are fallible. Roger Mattson meant well, even if his warnings were based on bad math. But for Miller, the real blame falls on those who were greedy, arrogant or lazy. Miller is especially angry at Babcock and Wilcox, the company that designed the power plant, as they were well aware of the flaws in their equipment.
Then there was also Metropolitan Edison, the utility company, which broke regulations and allowed major maintenance while the plant was nearly at full capacity. Miller shakes his head because he knows this is all part of a bigger problem. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed much of this bad behavior, which nearly led to a nuclear meltdown. Miller catches ice with SeeWhy, who gives a nod and smiles.
He suggests they start pushing their way toward the central console if they want to get there sometime before tomorrow. Miller chuckles and steps forward into the crowd.
In just a few moments. It will be time for him to power down the station. It's taken weeks for the operators to get to this point. They've been venting off the hydrogen as slowly as possible to avoid an explosion or dangerous release of radiation. But now it's time Miller reaches his position and gently nudges aside a pair of officials. As if on cue, the voices in the room all settle. Miller looks to the back office. The scientists in a white coat raises his hand.
It's Miller signal to turn off the core coolant pump. This will be the final step toward completely shutting down the plant. Miller flips a switch and the pump powers down. Technicians begin calling out temperatures and corroborating data points. So far, so good. Of course, temperature remains within limits. It's cooling at a rapid pace and will soon approach cold shutdown. Miller takes one more look at the familiar dials and gauges. Then he exhales a deep breath of relief.
It's finally over. Three years later, on July 21st, 1982, the Three Mile Island reactor was finally safe enough to assess the damage, a robotic camera was slowly lowered into the nuclear core. Investigators discovered something shocking. One half of the radioactive uranium core, 20 tons in all, had melted into the bottom of the reactor. Investigators concluded that Three Mile Island could have gone into total meltdown had the core remained uncovered for much longer during the initial accident.
The partial meltdown of Three Mile Island profoundly altered the way Americans viewed nuclear technology. The accident prompted numerous anti-nuclear protests and significantly slowed the growth of nuclear power in the U.S.. It also changed how nuclear power plants were developed, run and regulated. The cleanup of the damaged reactor, a Three Mile Island, took nearly 14 years and cost state and federal governments about nine hundred seventy three million dollars. Three Mile Island was largely seen as an accident in which minimal radiation was released and no one was hurt.
However, a group of some 4000 local residents believe that the incident was far more dangerous than has been publicly acknowledged. They cite a myriad of health issues that they or their loved ones have experienced. Christine Lehmann, the strange St. resident, has suffered from melanoma, fibromyalgia, thyroid problems, infertility and brain lesions. Neither Babcock and Wilcox nor Metropolitan Edison were charged for any economic, medical or psychological damages. Next on Americans, can we speak with Peter Bradford, who began serving as a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in 1977.
We'll talk about what it was like to deal with the unfolding crisis at Three Mile Island and how events then shaped the world today from wandering. This is episode three of Three Mile Island for American Scandal. If you like our show, please give us a five star rating and leave a review. Be sure to tell your friends subscribe on Apple podcast. Spotify, the one area or wherever you're listening right now, join one, replacing the one to listen and free.
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In most cases, we can't know exactly what was said, but all our dramatisations are based on historical research. I consulted for this series is Jay. Samuel Walker is the author of the book Three Mile Island A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, which contains more rich details about the nuclear accident. And if you'd like to learn even more about Three Mile Island, we recommend the book The Warning by Mike Wray and IRA Rosen. American Scandal is hosted, edited an executive produced by me, Lindsey Graham for Airship Audio Editing by Molly BOQ Sound Design by Derek Barens.
This episode is written by Charles Olivier, edited by Christina Fallsburg, produced by Gabe Revett, executive producers Stephanie Gen's, Jenny Beckman and Hernan Lopez for Wanderin. Hey, guys, I'm Nikki Boyer, host of The Daily Smil, Nina Chheda is an illustrator with a mission life saltworks word. Absolutely terrible. The people look quite scary, but I just kept going.
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