Three Mile Island’s cooling towers stood like ivory rooks, silhouetted against the drab gray of February on a recent afternoon in Dauphin County.
The towers were airbrushed on the doors of Londonderry Township’s fire trucks, a hopeful image, with all four billowing plumes into the sky above the Susquehanna River. The towers haven’t looked that way since March 28, 1979, though, when one of the nuclear plant’s reactors suffered a partial meltdown, and families scrambled into their cars and fled or hid inside with their drapes closed.
“I can see the cooling towers from the upstairs window of my house,” resident John Ziats said. “When I look back on it, it was a time in my life that you’re just living your life and going about your business and something you have no control over happened, and as it progressed, it got scarier and scarier.”
The partial meltdown at TMI occurred at 4 a.m. that day 40 years ago. Bob Hauser was at work in Harrisburg and didn’t recall “a big hubbub” being made about the incident. At the time, he didn’t have a radio in his car.
“No one was talking about it,” Hauser, 69, recalled. “We were assured when the plant was built it would be safe.”
Hauser, married with two children, still went to work the next day. His then-wife stayed indoors at home in Middletown with the kids.
“My children don’t glow in the dark,” he joked.
Allen Myers, 63, recently retired from Three Mile Island, recalls his family moving out to a nearby farm to be safer. He wasn’t scared, though.
“The general public and the media blew it up bigger than it was,” he said.
Regardless of the media coverage, which was international, and the ongoing debate over whether TMI left anyone with lasting illnesses, Jeannie Dunaway said those spring days were unlike anything she ever experienced. Her family left for Connecticut the day President Jimmy Carter arrived to assuage fears.
“I still get anxious thinking about it,” said Dunaway, who is Ziats’ sister. “It was such a stressful time in our lives and those memories often come back.”
One afternoon last month historians were moving Three Mile Island artifacts into a museum in Middletown alongside sepia-toned photos of devastating fires and the Blue Raiders’ best football teams. Ominous magazine covers with “NUCLEAR ACCIDENT” in bold were perched in glass cases. Three Mile Island was the “most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history,” according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
The damage, one nuclear expert said, was more psychological than physical.
“It was nowhere near a Chernobyl. It was nowhere near Fukushima,” said James Mahaffey, author of Atomic Accidents: A History of Nuclear Meltdowns and Disasters: From the Ozark Mountains to Fukushima.
For some, however, Three Mile Island is not simply history. A half-life remains, a belief that their health, along with the health of others they know, was directly compromised by the disaster in Londonderry, where TMI is located. The NRC said the two million people within a 50-mile radius of TMI Unit 2 were exposed to a dose of radiation equivalent to a chest X-ray, but in 2017, researchers at the Penn State College of Medicine found a possible correlation between the incident and thyroid cancers in surrounding counties.
Inside Middletown’s Moose Lodge along Swatara Creek, three people sitting at the bar said they had thyroid issues. They knew people who had thyroid issues too.