TMI papers show Thornburgh as 'hero'

Governor documented aftermath of 1979 nuclear accident in detail


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At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident was beginning to unfold near Middletown, Dauphin County, and Metropolitan Edison Co. officials showed no haste in alerting government officials.

By 7:45 a.m., Gov. Dick Thornburgh, in office only 72 days, learned of the accident and faced a major challenge of leadership.

In time, he would earn praise for calm decision-making based on fact rather than unfounded rumors that circulated during the nation's worst commercial nuclear accident, which began 30 years ago today.

The Dick Thornburgh Archive at the University of Pittsburgh's Hillman Library includes 73 boxes of news releases, speeches, statements, memoranda and newspaper clippings about his experience with TMI.

Perhaps most interesting are notes Mr. Thornburgh wrote himself as he documented every detail, tracking events by the minute, to provide a factual account on which to base decisions.

One note, for example, states that at 7:02 a.m. that day, the plant was shut down, then two minutes later, the state Emergency Management Agency notified environmental officials. At 7:08, the state notified Dauphin County, followed by Lancaster County at 7:12 and York County at 7:20. It was not until 7:36 a.m. that TMI officials announced a "general emergency," prompting the state to alert local, state and federal agencies.

"There's enormous detail," said Nancy Watson, curator of the Thornburgh Collection at Hillman Library. "The governor of Pennsylvania was in the hot seat, and it is interesting to have all his notes and the progression of information throughout the crisis."

Some radiation was released from TMI's No. 2 reactor during the five-day emergency caused by a stuck valve, followed by a long series of errors that ended with partial meltdown of the nuclear core. No deaths could ever be documented, but the accident prompted a media circus that fed wild rumors and fanned public panic.

The accident led to re-evaluation of the safety of nuclear power that persists today.

The New York Times said TMI "presented reporters with the formidable problem of explaining a highly complex situation that scientists had never quite faced before and on which the experts could not agree."

Throughout the crisis, Mr. Thornburgh systematically gathered information before deciding whether an evacuation would be wise. In the meantime, newspapers published stories about "The Agony of the Atom." The Post-Gazette published the headline, "Nuclear Plant Meltdown Disaster Possible" with a sub-headline, "Thousands flee."

Wearing protective yellow boots, President Jimmy Carter and Mr. Thornburgh visited the TMI No. 2 control room to gain a better understanding of the problem.

"The most interesting thing is how little was known and how difficult it was for the governor to know who had the facts," Ms. Watson said.

In time, Mr. Thornburgh recommended that pregnant women and preschool-age children leave the area, but he never suggested an evacuation, although about 140,000 people chose on their own to leave the region during the crisis. Ironically, two counties had evacuation plans that would have sent people in opposite directions over the same bridge over the Susquehanna River.

"He would see where the facts would lead to make decisions under frightening circumstances, then communicate them in the best way to the citizens to avoid undue fear and panic," Ms. Watson said.

Based on the archive, Ms. Watson said, Mr. Thornburgh emerges as "the hero of the crisis."

"I think his calm and careful decision-making was reassuring," Ms. Watson said. "Someone was willing to hold the reins, and in this case, it was the governor."


David Templeton can be reached at dtempleton@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1578.


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