In mid-March 1979, Americans headed to the theaters to see The China Syndrome. Starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon, the disaster thriller follows a broadcast journalist who discovers safety coverups at a nuclear power plant and the plant supervisor who tries to avert a nuclear disaster. Variety called it “moderately compelling” while the New York Times was a bit more generous, deeming it a “smashingly effective, very stylish suspense melodrama.”
Whatever the critics said, The China Syndrome immediately spurred debate about the dangers of relying on nuclear power and the real-world plausibility of such a disaster. One nuclear power executive said the film was “an overall character assassination of an entire industry.” He reassured readers of the New York Times, “The systems are designed and built in such a way that a reactor will operate safely even if there is a significant equipment failure or human error.”
But just 12 days after the film’s release, proponents of nuclear power were having to answer for a drastic real-life situation. On March 28, 1979, at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, a combination of technical malfunction and human error caused one of the reactors (Unit 2) to partially melt down and release a small amount of radiation into the atmosphere. The site took 14 years and $1 billion to clean up and, to date, Three Mile Island remains the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.
In the aftermath, a presidential commission investigated the accident and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission intensified its oversight of nuclear reactors, implementing new industry-wide safety standards. Many local residents became dedicated anti-nuclear advocates, while others continued working at the non-damaged reactor (Unit 1), which resumed operation in 1985.
Now, 40 years after the accident, Three Mile Island might be closing down for good. Unless Pennsylvania state legislators vote to save the power plant, it will shut in September.
Elected in 1978, Robert Reid was the mayor of Middletown Borough, which is just three miles from the plant. On the occasion of the anniversary of the accident, Smithsonian spoke with Reid, who finished his last term as mayor in 2013, about what it was like on the ground when the reactor partially melted down.
How did you learn about the partial meltdown in one of the reactors?
I was teaching at the local high school, and I was on hall duty when the emergency preparedness coordinator called. He said, “Something’s going on down at the island.” They told us there was a problem, but no release of radiation. But we kept hearing different stories. Then they told me there was a small release of radiation. I thought they had been lying to us, but now I think that this was a new type of energy and things were developing so fast they didn’t know how to react. That was Wednesday. Then everything seemed to go back to normal.
But there was still a problem.
On Friday there was a hydrogen bubble that they thought was going to explode [and release radioactive material]. The governor called for an evacuation of pregnant women and preschool-age children. But most people left on their own. We figured three-quarters of the people left the borough.
What was the reaction like among the townspeople?
There was a run on the banks. Teenagers were going around town announcing that everyone had to evacuate. It was a mess. I recall standing on a street corner. People were hollering out of their car windows, “Mayor, watch the town!” I knew I couldn’t go. I kept thinking, I was born and raised here. If we had a heavy release of radiation, I'd have to leave this area and start a new life somewhere else. A lot of people thought about this. “What's going to happen to us? Where are we going to go?”
When did the people who evacuated come back?
There was no explosion, but most people didn’t return for a week or two. It took quite a while for things to get back to normal. In fact, some people never did return.
What was it like to be the mayor during this crisis?
Oh, it was tough. I was concerned, but I couldn't display it. I couldn't let people see that I was almost frightened, too. Someone had to be in charge that the people could look up to and say, “Well, we have someone. We have a leader here that knows what he’s doing, so we'll follow what he’s doing.” Just my displaying calm was a calming effect as far as the people were concerned. This is what people tell me now.
My wife wouldn’t leave. I said, “Look, I can't be worrying about you and worrying about the town.” I said, “You’re going to have to take the kids and get out of town.” They left and went to Connecticut and stayed at my brother’s house. But I knew I couldn't go because I had a responsibility to be here.
Did you see the town’s public opinion turn against nuclear power?
Shortly after the accident, there was a referendum. It was a vote taken whether to keep the plant closed. It was put on the ballot [in] Dauphin County. Two to one to keep it shut. It wasn't a binding vote. [The plant re-opened in 1985.]
As the years went on and on and on, people became a little more educated as far as nuclear energy was concerned. They're not concerned as much now. Today, if you took that same vote, it would be much different.
What changes did you see at the plant after the accident?
When it was first built, the so-called experts [were] looking down their noses at the people living in the area. The people weren't involved.
Today, the plant owners involve the local citizens in just about everything they do. They have committees that meet with the owners of the plant and the engineers. They meet and they discuss things. We're part of the nuclear system that's in the area. Not like it was 40 years ago.
[Before], they never reported anything to the local government. But after the accident, a fish couldn't jump out of the water unless they called me. “Mayor, a fish jumped out of the water so we're calling you to let you know what's going on.” It’s a little different today than it was years ago. They're better neighbors. Let's put it that way.
How do locals feel about Three Mile Island today?
Every once in a while, if the sirens blow down at the island, people ask what’s going on. But we’ve learned more about nuclear energy. Personally, I think we have the safest nuclear plant in the world because everybody is keeping an eye on it. Still, I kept a Geiger counter [an instrument that detects radiation] in my office. I looked at it every day. It reminded me to be prepared.