Two Gung-Ho Nuclear Engineers Brave the Unknown to Clean Up Three Mile Island
Volunteers Only—that was the order at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Middletown, Pa. when the Metropolitan Edison Company needed two engineers to inspect the damage done in the most serious U.S. industrial nuclear accident. Although most of the radioactive krypton gas had been vented into the atmosphere by last month, the Unit 2 containment building was still “hot.” How hot, and how deadly, no one could say for sure until engineers Bill Behrle, 36, and Mike Benson, 27, courageously offered to enter the building.
Their first attempt was canceled when the safety equipment failed to meet standards, and the second ended when the 1,000-pound steel door to the building stuck. It was subsequently drilled open, and Berhle and Benson prepared for a third foray. “I wanted to play some meaningful role in the company’s recovery of Three Mile Island,” says Behrle, who has been with General Public Utilities, the parent of Metropolitan Edison since 1967. Although they received no extra pay for the mission, the men admit that there were other reasons they stepped forward. Benson, a nuclear engineer who was hired by Met Ed on April Fools’ Day 1974, has been frankly bored with the damage-review desk work he has been doing since the accident 16 months ago. Behrle, one of the company’s top engineers, is a thrill lover who plans to learn skydiving next.
Swathed in three layers of cotton coveralls topped by firemen’s coated clothing, Behrle led his colleague through an air lock and opened the door to Unit 2. He held out a Thermal Luminescent Dosimeter (TLD), studied the dial—and found a remarkably low level of radiation. “As soon as I got my first reading of 400 millirems, I felt like a kid in a candy shop,” he recalls. Although another radiation measuring device registered 22,000 millirems for an instant when he extended it toward the water surrounding the reactor core—the hottest place in the building—Behrle learned when he left the building 20 minutes later that neither he nor Benson had been exposed to more than 220 millirems an hour—well within the federally imposed safety limit of 3,000 millirems during a three-month period. The engineers returned with smear samples of surface contamination and took photographs. Met Ed plans five more entries to map the damage before beginning repairs.
Met Ed officials say the pair pulled off the job flawlessly, but Behrle’s performance at the press conference afterward was not as well programmed. Asked to describe what he had seen, he replied, “Well, it’s kind of like entering a tomb.” That caused an uproar. Behrle went on to explain, “These places are damp and muggy, and I always equate them with catacombs. I didn’t mean it was eerie or foreboding.” Even during a dry run with Met Ed public relations officials, Behrle goofed. Asked if he thought his grandchildren would be proud of him, Behrle—a bachelor who roars around in his yellow Corvette with his computer operator girlfriend, Mary Lee Garrison, 26—replied: “Well, I doubt if I’ll ever have any grandchildren.” He laughs: “The PR guy screamed, ‘Don’t say that! They’ll think you’re sterile.’ All I meant was that since I’m not married I didn’t see grandchildren in my immediate future.”
For his part, Mike Benson thought so little of the danger that he neglected to tell his wife when the mission was scheduled. “Somebody at work said, ‘Tomorrow’s Mike’s big day,’ ” says Nancy Benson, 29, a dental hygienist. “I just pretended I knew, but I was a little upset with him when I found out.” Mike’s major fear, he says, was the repeated physical exams: “The nurses over at the hospital will tell you I’m scared of everything, especially getting a needle in my arm.”
After their mission was completed, the two heroes and some colleagues went to a Harrisburg restaurant to celebrate. “We drank a little beer,” Benson says. But Behrle recalls the festivities as more traumatic than the accomplishment: “I don’t know what Mike had, but I remember that I had two piña coladas, three vodkas with bitter lemon and a bottle of wine,” he says. “I’d just as soon you don’t ask me to remember the rest of the evening.”