Newspaper: The Dickinsonian
Date: April 12, 1979
Article: Nuclear Accident inspires faculty study group.
Author: (Ed. Note: The following article is an excerpt of a study being conducted by the Reactions to the Reactor Project Study Group. The group consists of Professors Julius and Melissa Kassovic, Lonna Malmsheimer, and Dan Bechtel.)

The College is in Carlisle, 23 miles from Three Mile Island, and by the evening of April Fool’s Day it was clear that only a few hundred of us students, faculty, and administratore were left on campus. Regular classes were suspended, but the decision was made to continue as an institution of learning while awaiting the possibility of becoming an evacuation center. Accordingly, some of us organized mini-seminars, or what we used to call “teach-ins,” on various topics, many related to the situation (crisis? disaster?) on Three Mile Island.

While the physics department had teams of students analyzing soil samples, four of us in the social sciences decided to sample individual and group reactions to the drama in Harrisburg.

With more than twenty enthusiastic students from various disciplines who joined us to do fieldwork, we unashamedly began to investigate three areas of interest to the faculty members involved personal fantasies about the nuclear danger, items of folklore related to the crisis, and the nature of religious responses to the situation. Our first session was devoted to a crash course on fieldwork and interviewing techniques; then armed with an open-ended questionnaire, we went out to talk with students, faculty, staff and other members of the college community.

We apologized for the raggedness of such instant social science. We were in much the same position as salvage archeologists, who must frantically dig a site before it disappears under a parking lot, we fervently longed for the end of the crisis, even though out data ebbed along with the anxiety. So we collected feverishly and feel that our data, however flawed, represents a valuable record of what life was like in a small community at the 23-mile radius.

Any sort of in-depth analysis at this time would be premature, but interesting patterns are emerging.
Personal fantasies and mental images, the particular interests of Prof. Lonna Malmsheimer in American Studies, came primarily from two sources, the media and personal experience with other disasters. In addition to the inevitable “China Syndrome,” informants report such images as the black cloud from “The Swarm,” the panic during the burning of Atlanta in “Gone With The Wind,” and Japanese horror films. Others saw scenes from films transposed to Carlisle: “Hiroshima Mon Amour” on High Street, the evacuation of “War of the Worlds.” “Dr. Strangelove” and “Fail Safe” provided images which helped to structure responses. Some people said they saw themselves “in the middle of a bad movie.”

It is widely accepted that all humor is, in a sense, nervous laughter, an attempt to diminish anxiety by viewing the situation as absurd. Anthropologists Julius and Melissa Kassovic were therefore not surprised that a substantial body of jokes and witticisms had been generated by the Three Mile Island incident. There were many areas of anxiety (Should I go or stay? Will the whole thing explode? Whom can I trust? Will I be sterile? Have deformed children? Die of cancer?); an interesting preliminary finding is that the bulk of the jokes among students concerned possible sterility or impotence (the two were often confused) and the risk of deformed offspring.

The study of religious responses, theological, moral and liturgical, is being pursued by means of a supplementary questionnaire. Prof. Daniel R. Bechtel, a Biblical scholar, reports that thus far the majority of the people interviewed did not think that God had chosen to create a crisis to punish, discipline or instruct mankind. They seldom experienced mental images of comparable Biblical events. These results are evidence, perhaps, that we live in an increasingly secularized society which has lost access to Biblical images as a means for understanding current human crisis.

Those informants who did pray, asked not that God actively interfere at Three Mile Island, but that He give the engineers wisdom and the people surrounding area courage; God was clearly seen as involved in the lives of individuals but not in the workings of mechanical, technological things.

The “Radiation Vacation” is over now; those who coped with the anxiety by going away have returned, and all together we face the minor crisis of making up last week’s classes before the May commencement. We are continuing to collect and analyze last week’s data, and intend to compare them with information from a larger sample with a wider range in age and occupation. We hope to make an eventual statement concerning the cultural inventory on which a population draws when facing an unprecedented situation. An old bit of folk wisdom. has it that a mistake can be of value if you recognize it, acknowledge it, learn from it, and forget it. With all due respect to the folk, we trust that the Three Mile Island will not be forgotten soon; we are trying to learn from it a much as we can about individual and group reaction to crisis. Anyone willing to share his or her dreams, daydreams, experience, jokes, stories, religious experiences or insight, or other reactions should write to Reactions to the Reactor Project, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA 17013