Newspaper: The Patriot
Date: March 29, 1979
Title: Three Mile Island: Legacy of Trouble
Author: Barker Howland, Staff Writer

The Unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station has been a center of controversy both before and after its dedication Sept. 19, 1978.

Construction on the island began in 1967 and the first 800-megawatt unit was placed in operation in 1974. The construction of Unit 2 began in 1970, but delay after delay, protest after protest, hearing after hearing followed each other causing temporary setbacks in getting it ready for operation. Added to all this, there was a minor fire, a labor dispute and an incident which caused some doubts about security.

Hearings on the application by Metropolitan Edison Co., Jersey Central Power and Light Co. and Pennsylvania Electric Co (whose consortium owns the nuclear facility) to operate Unit 2-Unit 1 was already in operation-first were held by the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board in April 1977 at Harrisburg’s Federal Building.

The hearings were held as a result of a petition by the Citizens for a Safe Environment and the York Committee for a Safe Environment. The petitioners requested that the board withhold an operating license for Unit 2 until emergency and evacuation plans were shown to be workable through live tests. The petitioners contended that the evacuation plans were “inadequate and unworkable.”

AT THE hearings, the staff of the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission presented an estimate that it might require three to six hours to evacuate a 45-degree area stretching out five miles from Three Mile Island.

A mass demonstration against licensing of the reactor was held on May 31, 1977, when about 100 residents of the Goldsboro area released hundreds of helium-filled balloons bearing tags calling attention to the danger of nuclear fallout.

Those who found the balloons were asked to write on the tags where the balloons landed and mail the tags to Citizens for a Safe Environment, a Harrisburg-based organization. It was noted on the message tags that “fallout from a nuclear accident may travel this far.”

Sponsors of the protest were Harrisburg Friends Meeting, Harrisburg Area Community College Association for Peace, Unitarian Church of Harrisburg, Harrisburg Center for Peace and Justice, and Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Two days after the demonstration, the hearings resumed in the federal building and during this round eight area residents testified against licensing of the reactor on grounds that there was no “knowledgeable method of evacuation” for residents near Three Mile Island, that rural residents could not be evacuated and that many of the residents had “not been informed as to dangers and hazards of radiological fallout.”

While these hearings were taking place, a controversy arose over the security of the island. Metropolitan Edison contended that any small group attempting to enter the island would be repelled.

In August 1977, to add to the woes of the nuclear plant’s management, there was a labor demonstration by about 100 workers at the entrance of the station.

MEMBERS OF Local 520 of the Plumbers and Pipe Fitters Union charged that a New Jersey Firm which was installing meters and gauges on Unit 2 had not hired local pipe fitters.

Then on Sept. 4, 1977, a fire in Unit 2 caused minor damage to scaffolding used in cleaning pipes. The fire was extinguished by the plant fire crew and did not affect Unit 1.

Early in 1978, there was a scare. Metropolitan Edison announced that increased concentrations of radioactivity were found in sediment in the Susquehanna River about a mile south of the island.

However, an official of the state’s Bureau of Radiological Health said that no health hazard to the public had been posed.

Fallout from an atmospheric weapons test conducted by China the preceding September and a small amount of legal discharge were responsible for the increased radioactivity, the bureau said.

On Jan. 16, 1978, about 30 “concerned citizens” met in the Middletown borough hall to hear a plan for the evacuation of the area surrounding Three Mile Island should it be necessary.

On Feb. 10, it was announced that the NRC had granted an operating license for Unit 2. In response to the commission’s announcement, John G. Herbein, vice president of Metropolitan Edison, said that with the license “we can begin fuel loading immediately and then proceed to an extensive series of tests which are required for initial operation of a reactor. After these tests, we will increase to 100 percent electrical output.”

But on March 1, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, at the request of two citizen’s groups, ordered activation of the new reactor temporarily halted.

Dr. Chauncey R. Kepford of State College, representing the Harrisburg Citizens for a Safe Environment and York Committee for a Safe Environment, in a brief charged that the NRC failed to notify the groups that a license had been granted to Unit 2, thereby forfeiting the groups’ right to challenge action through NRC administrative channels. It also was charged that the failure to notify was “deliberate and intentional.”

UNDER THE court order, Met Ed was allowed to continue testing of the unit but could not initiate a sustained nuclear reaction until further notice.

Seven days later, and by a 2-1 decision, the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington rejected the request of Kepford for a permanent injunction against the NRC to halt the operation. Kepford had argued that seepage of radon 222 gases from “tailings” or waste left over from the mining and milling of uranium posed a health hazard. He contended that the NRC failed to consider adequately the hazard in its environmental impact statement on Unit 2.

Towards the end of March, Kepford and his group asked the Atomic Safety Licensing and Appeal Board to halt initial operation of Unit 2.

Kepford told the board that aircraft operations in the nuclear plant’s neighborhood pose an unknown threat, emergency evacuation plans are inadequate and “the largest single source of radioactive emission in the fuel cycle has been ignored by the NRC.”

However, within a week the board came back with an answer and that answer was a refusal to rule on the motion to suspend operations. Instead, the objection was sent to a NRC licensing board for “further proceedings.”

There were troubles, too, in getting the reactor to full operation. There was an unplanned generation stoppage April 23, 1978, although Unit 2 had become initially radioactive March 28. And then in July 1978, another challenge by foes of the reactor was turned down by the NRC appeal panel although it did decide to order further study of aircraft crash possibilities.

This decision on the part of NRC prompted a risk appeal from the safe environment group and a charge by Kepford that Unit 2 “is an accident just waiting to happen, and when it does, the glib assurances that the public health and safety are being protected will not suffice.”

There were some red faces on the island regarding its security last July, when Francis Mummert had to go searching for help after climbing a fence and not being noticed. He and his companions had coasted to the island in their disabled boat.

Sept. 19 saw the dedication ceremony for Unit 2 with a few protesters present.

But this did not end the controversy over the operation of the reactor. A third round of federal hearings to examine hazards posed by airline flights over Three Mile Island will be held Monday at the Federal Building.