It was March 28, 1979, when a partial meltdown at one of the power plant’s reactors near the Susquehanna River 10 miles from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania sent radioactive gas escaping into the air and triggered days of panic and confusion for residents of the region. and across the country who feared seeing their worst sci-fi nightmares come true.
A new Netflix documentary, “Meltdown: Three Mile Island,” which premiered on Wednesday, draws attention to the day.
ABC News and 6abc were on the ground covering the incident as it unfolded.
In 2020, as part of 6abc’s 50-year Action News retrospective, longtime journalist Vernon Odom recalled his days reporting on the disaster.
“I went up (to Three Mile Island), part of my image as a brave journalist. We started to realize how dangerous this situation was becoming,” Vernon said.
Just after 4 a.m. on that spring day in 1979, an electrical mechanical failure caused a water pump in the Unit 2 reactor to shut down, setting off a series of terrifying events that were compounded by an error human and delays in public notification.
A broken pump disrupted the flow of water that cooled the reactor, causing the uranium fuel rods to partially melt and allowing radioactive gas to build up in the reactor and some of it eventually leaked out through its four-foot thick containment walls into the atmosphere, officials mentioned. The meltdown created a bubble of hydrogen in the damaged reactor and officials feared it might explode.
Harrisburg resident William Whittock told ABC News at the time that he didn’t need officials to tell him something had gone seriously wrong at the plant.
“I heard a very loud noise that sounded like a huge steam coming out,” Whittock said in an interview on the day of the accident. “I looked out the window, and it was dark, but you could tell from the lights that there was a geyser of steam rising in the air.”
But for several days officials, including then-Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, failed to realize the seriousness of the problem and struggled to explain it to the public – even though a plant supervisor had declared an emergency just hours after the accident and the station manager sounded a general emergency for the nearby public as serious radiological consequences were possible.
Odom saw Thornburgh at the scene and asked him if things were safe and if the operators had everything under control.
“He said, ‘I’m not sure, Vernon, if you could find out, here’s my phone number. Call me. Let me know. He was hot under the collar,” Odom said.
“I just have to tell you that we share your frustration,” Thornburgh, who had been governor for less than 75 days, told residents at a news conference the day after the crash. “It’s hard to pin down these facts so we can give you some sort of reliable set of information. We try to do our best. We also get conflicting reports. What we try to do is you give our best estimate of what the correct facts are.”
Other officials at the scene included Jody Powell, White House press secretary to then-President Jimmy Carter.
“I see Jody Powell, Jimmy Carter’s publicist. I’m like, ‘Jody, what’s going on here? Is this stuff safe, man?'” Odom recalled. “He said, ‘We won’t be spending the night…’ Jody said we were getting out of here as fast as we could.”
Odom also did not stay that first night.
“Of course, no other journalists wanted to come there. And most cameramen. They were witnessing a ‘nuclear meltdown’. I was very young. I was not married. I had no children I said, ‘Man, I’m going to get grilled here,'” Odom said.
The veteran reporter continued, “I thought about it and eventually came back. I went back up several days in a row. Lots of people were hiding under their stairs, calling in sick if they thought I wasn’t working.”
To add to the drama, the release of the film “China Syndrome” just a week before the crisis broke out in Three Mile Island. The thriller, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon, is about a fictional meltdown at a nuclear power plant.
“You saw that movie…it was a rerun of that,” Odom said.
Two days after the accident, Thornburgh advised that pregnant women and children be evacuated from the surrounding area. But many more people than that have decided to take shelter from harm. More than 100,000 people have fled the area, and area schools and businesses have closed.
“We got halfway there with a cameraman once, he freaked out and told us to turn around and take him home someday,” Odom said.
Bob Reid, who was then mayor of nearby Middletown, recalled in a 2019 interview with ABC affiliate station WHTM-TV when he got the call of trouble at Three Mile Island.
“I was told there were no injuries and everything was under control,” Reid said.
But then he received a second call that caused panic in his community.
“We were told there was a leak and things took off from there,” Reid said. “Concerns began to grow. Pregnant women and children were ordered to evacuate.”
Netflix says its four-part documentary series “addresses the near-disaster at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania through the lens of chief engineer and whistleblower, Richard Parks, as well as the community she insiders recount the events, controversies, and lingering effects of the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.”
“The management of this place didn’t know what was going on. They were completely confused. They were trying to cover up the mistake that had been made,” Odom said.
On April 1, 1979, Carter, who had been a member of a Navy crisis team that helped dismantle a damaged nuclear reactor core at a plant in Canada, visited the Three Mile Island facility and attempted to allay growing fears.
When the emergency was finally declared over, federal officials said only a small amount of radiation was released into the air. The accident caused no deaths or injuries, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The real victim of the crisis has been the prospect of nuclear power in the United States, as a backlash has caused support for the industry to plummet.
The accident was followed by sweeping changes and safety improvements in the nuclear industry.
Odom, who retired from Action News in 2018, called his time reporting at Three Mile Island a sign of courage.
“Channel 6 looked at me very favorably when I did it because they had no one else to go to,” Odom said. “They appreciated my strength under fire, my commitment under fire.”
The plant reopened in September 1984 with the exception of the crippled reactor after a $400 million cleanup.
Exelon Corp. retired the Three Mile Island facility in September 2019.
ABC News contributed to this report.
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