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Three Mile Island: Myth and Fact

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TEN years ago, the reactor at Three Mile Island had a hydrogen bubble in it. There were headlines about the reactor possibly exploding. Walter Cronkite's dramatic lead-in on the CBS evening newscast made people gasp. The governor of Pennsylvania recommended that pregnant women and small children leave the area around Middletown. Why was the latter decision so important? Because it led to the ``emergency planning'' rule that has stopped the Shoreham and Seabrook reactors, delayed the startup of other plants (adding huge costs), and made it obvious that the nuclear licensing process itself must be reformed.

The hydrogen bubble? It couldn't explode because there was no oxygen.

By daybreak on Wednesday, March 28, 1979, news of the accident was on the wires. The media descended on the area. Around the country, professors, nuclear engineers, utility executives, and antinuclear activists were interviewed.

President Carter announced that he would visit the crippled plant himself, and he designated a single spokesman, Harold Denton of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), as the only authorized source of information. Mr. Denton's calm and straightforward presentations won the confidence of the media and the local citizens. However, errors in his information set the stage for the ``evacuation'' decision.

On Friday morning, under heavy public and media pressure, the governor of Pennsylvania recommended (not ordered) a limited evacuation in case the hydrogen bubble exploded. His own technical staff had not been able to reach him in time to tell him what they and others knew.

In the accident, the hot fuel grabbed oxygen from water and hydrogen was released. Without any free oxygen left in the vessel, the hydrogen could not burn. No burning: no explosion.

But the pressure on the governor to do something was severe. Evacuating pregnant women and small children seemed to be a compromise.

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