Three Mile Island

Pennsylvania Highways
October 29, 2007

Before March 28, 1979, hardly anyone aside from those living in Central Pennsylvania, knew where Three Mile Island was located. However, after that date, anyone in the world with access to a TV, a radio, or a newspaper could take a map of Pennsylvania and point to a sandbar in the middle of the Susquehanna River.

The TMI-2 reactor had just come online in December 1978, and was the same design as the reactors of the Shippingport Nuclear Power Plant near Beaver. The accident began in the early morning of March 28, when a little after 4:00 AM, pumps supplying water to TMI-2’s steam generators tripped. With no water, there would be no steam, and therefore the plant’s safety system kicked into action and shut down the steam turbine and the generator it powered. The nuclear reactions in the core continued until the system dropped the control rods into the core to halt the fission process, which is a process called “scramming.” Even with the control rods in the core, heat continued to rise because decaying radioactive materials left from the fission process continued to heat the water.

The accident fell into the laps of four men: William Zewe, shift supervisor for TMI-1 and TMI-2; Fred Scheimann, shift foreman for TMI-2; and two control room operators, Edward Frederick and Craig Faust. Each man had been trained by Metropolitan Edison and Babcock & Wilcox and licensed by the NRC. However, nothing in their training had prepared them for this problem.

The first word of the accident came at 8:25 AM, with a report from WKBO-AM in Harrisburg. Using a yellow Camero with a CB radio, the station’s traffic reporter Dave “Captain Dave” Edwards relayed information that police and fire fighters were mobilizing in Middletown. He also mentioned that there was no steam emanating from the plant’s cooling towers. Mike Pintek, then WKBO’s news director and who would later move onto KDKA-AM in Pittsburgh, called the plant to speak to someone in the public relations office. The receptionist, hurried as she was, instead connected him to the control room to a man who said, “I can’t talk now, we’ve got a problem. Call Reading and talk to them.” The man denied that “there are any fire engines,” and told Pintek to telephone Met Ed, owners of the plant, in Reading.

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