March 24, 1980 12:00 PM

Reactor No. 2 at Three Mile Island, crippled nearly a year ago in the worst accident in the history of the nuclear power industry, looms over Middletown, Pa. like a behemoth, unfathomable even to its keepers. Inside the core’s lead-lined containment chamber, a radioactive rain has been condensing and falling for the past year, generated by the enormous pool of highly contaminated water and creating an internal climate the containment building was not designed to tolerate. Last week TMI’s operators, Metropolitan Edison, took its first step toward gaining access to the containment chamber since the accident last March 28. Radioactive krypton-85 trapped in the chamber’s air lock was vented into the sky over Middletown.

The amount of the radiation—47 millicuries—was barely more than an operating reactor gives off in a day. But the step was taken in an atmosphere of intensifying crisis. Even defenders of Met Ed and the nuclear power industry spoke of the increasing danger of leaks—and the possibility of a meltdown if nothing were done. Met Ed volunteers were scheduled to open the air lock late last week, and even those closest to the problem seemed unsure of what they would find. “The people involved will have a certain amount of butterflies,” admitted the company’s man in charge of the operation, Senior Vice-President Robert Arnold, but he left no doubt it had to be done. “The reliability [of the containment chamber],” he said, “is not as high as we would like it to be.”

In the often histrionic debate over nuclear power, TMI spurred the renascent antinuke movement to fresh heights of fury and rhetoric—and, for a time, plunged industry proponents into a defensive sulk. Next week’s anniversary of the event, to be observed with thoroughly orchestrated demonstrations—including a four-day rally in Harrisburg featuring Linda Ronstadt—could well work to renew that polarity. But the heat generated by the TMI accident has also shed new light on the nuclear power issue. No fewer than six groups, commissioned by the government and the nuclear industry, have investigated the accident. As a result, numerous changes have been made in the way nuclear reactors are built and maintained. There have been changes in operator training and certification, plant safety features, emergency procedures, control room staffing—and in the workings of the NRC itself. “Three Mile Island has been an inexpensive lesson in terms of public health effects,” says Harold Denton, director of reactor regulation for the commission. “It has made a profound impact on the way we approach regulation.”

Denton’s informed optimism is shared by few who live in the shadow of the TMI cooling towers. According to a recent study by the Pennsylvania health department, the incidence of hyperthyroidism in local newborns last year was five times the national average, though the finding is still inconclusive. Middletown veterinarians are reporting a significant increase in cesarean births, muscle diseases and arthritis in the area’s livestock—and several farmers claim that a number of their cattle have mysteriously weakened and had to be destroyed. “Something has gone wrong,” insists Middletown dairy farmer Jane Lee. “Trees in a 5-to-10-mile radius of the island began to defoliate in August last year. Marigolds don’t die until the first frost, but they were all dead in August. We saw very few birds—even the starlings which come here by the hundreds of thousands in late summer never appeared. It was spooky.”

No link between the accident and any health problem, either animal or human, has ever been established. Nevertheless, the suspicions have settled over Middletown like a pall. Some local cattlemen say wholesalers are reluctant to buy the meat they send to market, and a wine maker claims his sales have dwindled despite continual testing for residual radiation. “One thing we learned,” says Met Ed’s Arnold, “is that people are much less willing to accept radiation exposure, even low-level exposure, than we had expected. I can’t be critical of people who were very frightened at the time of the accident, but their anxieties now are not well founded.”

The reverse side of Middletown’s anxiety is a strange sort of nuclear bravado. Habitués of one local saloon near the Met Ed plant are given to wearing T-shirts that boast: “I didn’t die at TMI—I got soused at Railroad House.” Shorty and Joyce Yinger, whose home and adjacent commercial greenhouse are closer to Reactor No. 2 than any other inhabited property, have turned the accident to their profit by setting up a Three Mile Island souvenir shop that has attracted more than 25,000 customers since it opened last spring.

Beneath the confusion—in Middle-town and elsewhere—is a yawning communication gap between the industry and an apprehensive public. Met Ed sabotaged its own credibility with dismally inadequate reports of the accident, and those who felt duped remain bitter. Middletown Mayor Robert Reid claims the company lied to him last March 28, assuring him no accident had occurred—and that they did it again last month, when he questioned them about a reported radiation leak. “Now some people think I’m a liar,” says Reid, “and the company doesn’t understand that could be dangerous. If I were called upon to order an evacuation, no one would believe me.” John Garver, a Middletown salesman who founded PANE (People Against Nuclear Energy) after the TMI accident, believes concealment has become standard operating procedure in the nuclear industry. “Certainly Met Ed isn’t going to tell us anything they don’t want us to know,” he says, “and neither is the NRC.”

That kind of distrust, of course, has potentially dangerous side effects. By every account, something must be done soon about the containment chamber at TMI’s No. 2. “The building was designed to withstand any accident,” says Pennsylvania’s director of radiation protection, Thomas Gerusky, “but nobody thought of an accident lasting several years. If a fan fails and the atmosphere gets hot, we’ll have leaks. The seals were not designed for that kind of pressure.” Still, many of TMI’s neighbors are unwilling to accept Met Ed’s argument that releasing the chamber’s contaminants to gain access to the core is necessary to prevent the greater danger of a meltdown. Some critics are demanding that work be halted entirely until Met Ed can devise a way of pumping the gas directly into a sealed container. “They should do it the right way even if it bankrupts them,” argues PANE’S Garver. “Remember, Middletown didn’t call them up and ask them to put the plant here.”

The most constructive legacy of Three Mile Island may be its chastening effect on the industry and those who regulate it. “I think the chances of having some major public health threat occur now are very small,” says Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. William Scranton III, who heads the state’s TMI task force. “The concerns that have been raised about nuclear power are very good.” Harold Denton attributes the prompt containment of radioactive spillage following a valve rupture at a Florida plant two months ago to the reforms occasioned by the TMI mishap.

Denton concedes that nuclear power is hardly the ideal energy source, but argues that “we spend over a billion dollars a month in foreign countries to buy oil. I’m pro-coal, pro-solar, pro-geothermal, and I think there is a niche for uranium in a transition period. Compared to going without it, I think it’s a good bet.” It is a better bet, he believes, because of Three Mile Island. “The accident has had a profound effect,” he says. “Nuclear industry and reactor regulation will never be the same again.”

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