Meltdown: Three Mile Island (2022) s01e01 Episode Script

The Accident

1 [sirens wailing.]
Please stay indoors with your windows closed.
You're having dreams? What are the dreams? [boy.]
About the Three Mile Island.
[ominous music playing.]
I sat and thought about this stuff for years afterwards.
And how even after 40 years, it'll still rear its ugly head.
[reporter 1.]
It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare, the breakdown in an atomic power plant at Pennsylvania today.
[reporter 2.]
Middletown, Pennsylvania is on edge tonight.
[reporter 3.]
Highways are backed up and telephones are jammed.
The accident at Three Mile Island in 1979 was the worst nuclear accident to ever happen on American soil.
[reporter 4.]
Plant officials say the accident is not serious.
They wanted to keep information from the general public.
The company statements haven't answered important questions.
And they wanted to cover stuff up.
[reporter 5.]
How much radioactivity has already escaped from the plant? [officer.]
Remain indoors.
Close all windows and doors.
But the world needs to know what happened at Three Mile Island.
And what's happening in your dreams? [boy.]
People start moving out, and there's lots and lots of traffic.
And then, all of a sudden it blew up.
It is an awful responsibility which has come to us.
[reporter 1.]
Nuclear power stations devoted to peaceful purposes.
Nuclear energy is working wonders, providing a happier world for all mankind.
[reporter 2.]
Is this the future of energy or a recipe for nuclear disaster? [somber music playing.]
Three Mile Island was directly across from my childhood home.
Only thing separating it was the water, the railroad tracks, and a two-lane road.
And it was kind of just a fixture of the community.
The Middletown area was the perfect place to build this nuclear power plant because of the Susquehanna River being right there, supplyin' all the cooling needs of the plant.
Unit 1 went online in 1974, and Unit 2 went commercial in December of 1978.
Three Mile Island reactor number two went into commercial service just three months ago.
When the towers went up in our community, that represented progress.
I was a very happy homemaker.
I was running a small business.
I ran a daycare.
My husband worked on the railroad.
I could see the towers from my kitchen window, but I had no clue what nuclear power was.
A nuclear power plant is really just a big tea kettle.
Nuclear fuel and a chain reaction produces heat.
The heat turns water to steam.
The steam moves turbines.
The turbines produce electricity.
Nuclear energy was promoted as the next best thing.
It was gonna bring in jobs, and it's gonna be so cheap.
There was no thought about radiation, or the dangers, or anything.
I never even thought about it.
For a community like ours that was feeling the negative impacts of the demise of coal and steel, you had an industry coming to our community that employed a lot of people, paid well [reporter.]
Gas shortages are currently being experienced by car owners across the country.
Dependence on foreign oil threatens our economic independence.
If you look at what's going on nationally, nuclear appeared to be the answer.
This is the power and the promise of the atom.
When nuclear power plants were being marketed, they were the promise of tomorrow.
You could not have been more pro-nuclear than me.
[speaking indistinctly.]
Yeah, I worked at power plants all over the country, and I ended up in the power plant up in Michigan, which was identical to Three Mile Island.
All nuclear power plants are designed to keep the reactor cool.
And the operator, at the initiation of an accident, can grab his lunch bucket and go home, and the plant would be safe.
As a result of that, there was a mindset throughout the industry.
"A major accident could never happen.
" And I believed that.
But, you know, I was wrong.
[uneasy music playing.]
I know from personal experience, at four o'clock in the morning, that is the worst possible time of day.
You're struggling to stay awake.
I don't care how dedicated you are.
So the operators were sittin' there, fat, dumb, and happy.
And then, boom.
[alarm flaring.]
Every alarm starts goin' off simultaneously.
We have a turbine trip.
The reactor is offline.
Reactor coolant pumps are up and running.
And these operators are goin', "Holy Jesus, what is goin' on here?" [operator.]
We're not getting any emergency feed water.
Guys were stabbin' in the dark for over an hour.
Indications on the pressurizer are saying it's getting too full.
By that time, temperature in the reactor was goin' up, even though the water level continued to indicate that it was full.
[phone ringing.]
Shut down the reactor coolant pumps.
So they decided to shut off the pump that was making the water level go up, but it's not.
You never shut down water across a core.
They needed to cool that reactor.
They did not know what was goin' on, and it scared them.
[alarms blaring.]
I got a phone call right around five o'clock.
I was told that Unit 2 had shut down, and that the duty superintendent wanted me into the plant right away.
[suspenseful music playing.]
I had worked at Three Mile Island since Unit 1 first opened up, but Unit 2 at that time was only operating about three months.
So I just didn't know what I should be expecting.
At that time, operators in the control room were trying to analyze flows, pressures, temperatures.
And one of the major concerns was there's no fresh water flowing through the system.
There was no flow across that core, so the water just continued to sit there and heat up.
Finally, the on-call shift supervisor recognized the relief valve is open.
It's leakin'.
That's what the problem is.
At one point during the accident, a relief valve opens up to relieve the pressure.
That valve stuck open.
Water is no longer circulating inside the core and under no circumstance is the water level supposed to drop beneath the core, because so easily it can spiral out of control.
So, we shut the valve, and then focus on the reactor.
That stopped the scenario that they were in, but by that time, we're super-heating the reactor.
As the temperature continues to increase, the core will melt and create a self-sustaining nuclear reaction.
Extremely radioactive, highly dangerous.
At that point, you're in totally, totally uncharted territory.
Temperatures were soaring inside the reactor vessel, indicating the potential of a nuclear meltdown.
I heard a really loud noise coming from the plant, and it was something I've never heard before.
This is the house I grew up in.
The bus stop is right up here at the corner of the driveway.
So it was directly across from there.
As a six-year-old, I couldn't make sense of it, but asked, "Why? Why do we hear that noise? What was that noise about?" And I'm being told to, you know, "Come on, stay calm.
" "Everything's gonna be okay.
" So, I went outside, waiting for my bus to come to get to school, but I was scared.
I had absolutely no idea what was goin' on across the street.
At about the moment I was tracking the radiation monitoring system, all of a sudden, I heard a radiation alarm.
I immediately went down the hallway towards the reactor building.
Two technicians accompanied me so we could get in and find out what was going on.
[alarm blaring.]
There was nothing that we could easily identify as being a cause of radiation.
But very quickly, I noticed a increase in the meter reading, and overhead were the unshielded sample lines coming over from Unit 2 reactor system.
They were highly radioactive.
At that moment, it dawned on me that we had a major problem in Unit 2.
[Teletector pegging.]
We immediately left the area.
One of the technicians ran into the auxiliary building of Unit 2 to clear the building.
And I ran to the office and used the paging system.
We are failing fuel fast.
Declare an emergency.
This is Mike Pinzac in the KBO newsroom.
Met-Ed company officials had to shut down their Three Mile Island nuclear power station unit number two this morning after an accident occurred within the plant's turbine system.
Officials have been saying that there is no danger to the general public, and that the situation is under control.
I was still in bed.
The phone rang.
It was Governor Thornburgh.
He said, "Critch, there's a site emergency at Three Mile Island.
" And I said, "Governor," I said, "What is Three Mile Island?" We were still getting our feet wet.
We had just taken office 72 days earlier, and so this event came as quite a shock to us, because we simply had not anticipated anything like it.
After an initial three or four minutes of press There was very little information except that an incident had happened.
We started making phone calls to Metropolitan Edison, the company that owned the reactor, "What happened? What does this mean?" [Paul.]
Based on what we had heard from Met-Ed, things were generally stable.
This was not anything terribly serious.
We didn't get a lot of information, but they said they knew what they were doing, and that things were under control.
The Metropolitan Edison company has informed us that there has been an incident at Three Mile Island Unit 2.
Everything is under control.
There is, and was, no danger to public health and safety.
Metropolitan Edison has been monitoring the air in the vicinity of the plant constantly since the incident.
No increase in normal radiation levels has been detected.
[speaking indistinctly.]
How did you determine the radiation? How would you know which areas are contaminated and which are safe? - Bill, can you - Well [reporter.]
Who's this? the nuclear engineer with the DER.
Uh Metropolitan Edison immediately sent people out at the plant boundary and to Goldsboro, because the wind was blowing toward that direction, to take readings.
Before we came up here, I got word that they detected a small amount of iodine radioactive iodine on the ground.
- [reporter.]
What? - Radioactive iodine on the ground.
[Bill continues talking indistinctly.]
We were all surprised.
That was the first moment that anyone stated that there had been some radiation released.
I was really angry because I had gotten up there, essentially avowed that what Metropolitan Edison said was correct.
Where are the personnel who are charged with the responsibility of monitoring the atmosphere? Standing by in our office.
Why aren't they at the plant? [Bill.]
Because we rely on the company's instrumentation.
[reporter 2.]
I'm confused.
You're just taking what they tell you? Yes.
There were rumblings in the community because some of our neighbors had police monitors.
And it was my neighbor Paula who called and told me that people are talking about that there is an accident down on the island.
And I said, "Um, are you sure about that?" "Or are they misunderstanding what's happening?" She said, "No, the police have been called down, and maybe even the fire department.
" [Paula.]
My kiddos went to school.
My little one was outside playing.
And we were told that everything was under control.
And I believed them! There was no reason for me not to.
And that's when we started seeing journalists coming into the community asking questions.
I'm saying to myself, "What's really going on down there?" [somber music playing.]
I got a phone call from Rolling Stone asking if I want to cover the accident at Three Mile Island.
I said, "Boy, this is great.
" I was 25 years old, and it was a big opportunity at the time.
People were terrified about the possible dangers of nuclear power.
Because at that point, everybody's hearing stories about The China Syndrome, which was the big movie of the time that came out 12 days before the accident.
The China Syndrome.
Today, only a handful of people know what it means, and they're scared.
Now at theaters everywhere.
The movie predicted parallels to the event going on at Three Mile Island, which was completely eerie.
[alarms blaring.]
- What do we got, turbine trip? - Yeah.
The movie was about a nuclear power plant where the accident caused literally something called the China Syndrome.
If that's true, then we came very close to the China Syndrome.
The what? If the core is exposed for whatever reason, the fuel heats beyond core heat tolerance in minutes, and it melts down through the bottom of the plant, theoretically to China.
But it blasts into the atmosphere and sends out clouds of radioactivity.
Render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.
The fact that we're in Pennsylvania at a nuclear power plant when this is happening, people didn't understand how it could be so coincidental.
The movie was prophetic.
And it brought into the vernacular the concept of a core meltdown.
The concept that a reactor is potentially unstable.
People had never heard that before.
When The China Syndrome came out, there was a loud cry from the nuclear industry that this could never happen.
And within 12 days, people found out that it could.
[speaking indistinctly.]
[alarm blaring.]
There was a large thud heard in the control room.
And at the same time a pressure spike in the containment building, but it came straight down.
There was not a lot of understanding of what it was.
But the first reaction to it was to see if any operating equipment inside containment had failed.
A quick check by the operators identified that everything was running normal.
"There's no sense worrying about it now.
Let's move on.
" [alarm blaring.]
Within the next hour, radioactivity was getting into the control room.
[alarm blasts.]
Everything just kept deteriorating.
People were having to wear a mask 'cause they had higher boron contamination.
It was a clusterfuck in the control room.
At that point, I was focused entirely on, "Are we releasing radiation to the general public?" But we had no idea.
Radiation has been recorded as far as 16 miles away from Three Mile Island, though federal investigators insist that the levels are not high enough to threaten human health.
Officials are worried, however, that higher quantities recorded at the power plant's north gate could be dangerous.
Why was there such a delay in notifying the community that there was a problem at the plant? I don't think there was a delay [reporter.]
It happened at 4 o'clock.
They were notified at 9.
I don't think the general public was in danger at any point throughout the transit we experienced this morning.
From what we've seen, the safety of the plant's adequate.
We're using very sensitive instruments to monitor the area radiation, and at that point we we saw nothing.
[uneasy music playing.]
We put a meeting together in my office with the Metropolitan Edison people and Mr.
And it was a "come to Jesus" meeting.
I said, "What is going on here?" The response was, "Yeah, we've been releasing.
" Wh Wh "Why did you not let us know this?" And he said, "Well, no one asked me.
" And Which is just dumbfounded, just made me dumbfounded.
It was as if this was a guy who said, "This is our business, not yours.
" We knew from that point on they were not a reliable source of information.
This is an update on the incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant today.
The situation is more complex than the company first led us to believe.
Met-Ed officials insist this is not a serious accident, but they do admit that radiation has escaped into the environment.
How dangerous did the power company say the situation was? They assured me there was nothing to be concerned about.
Are you satisfied with that answer? I think we will get better answers.
Do you see any need to start evacuating people out of that area? No, we do not.
[people speaking indistinctly.]
After I get back home, we were watching TV and what was going on right down the road from my house.
I remember them talking about radiation.
Radioactive steam has escaped into the atmosphere and was detected.
I didn't understand it, but what was explained to me was that it could harm me.
You have your family there and all that you love We want real answers.
And we want to know what our future holds for us.
There's still questions that need to be answered.
What caused the mishap here today? And how long will the nuclear reactor be out of service? [reporter 2.]
 The cause will be determined only after the danger has passed.
For now, the crucial issue is stabilizing the plant as the situation could become much worse.
In the control room, people were required to put the respirators on until the alarm cleared.
It took us a while based on a lot of radiation measurements to get to the point where we felt comfortable not putting respirators on, but the whole drive then was, "How do we get to a position of stability?" It became obvious that we had to get one or more of those reactor coolant pumps in service, which were the main source of recirculating water through the core.
However, we had a concern about if it would possibly destroy the pump and do more damage by trying to start it than leaving it alone.
The control room set up a test.
The pump was turned on, forcing flow through the core.
And there was a collective sigh of relief in the control room when the pressures came back to their normal levels and that was our first indication of stability.
It basically stops the devastation that's going on at that moment.
Throughout the night, dozens of workers checked air samples for radiation near the accident site at Three Mile Island.
The air samples you checked right outside the container were not lethal? No.
They weren't lethal, no.
I'm sorry, I gotta go.
- [reporter.]
You have fears of radiation? - No.
No, not at all.
I gotta go, sorry.
The radiation level outside the plant has been at a very low level, and it certainly has not endangered any of the people in the area.
Not at all.
Keep in mind, we have 72 nuclear reactors in operation in this country.
They've been in operation, some of them since 1974, and we still haven't injured a single member of the public, and I think that's significant.
There has been no technology that man has ever been involved with since the first time he started to use fire that can claim any record like that.
I got to the plant on the morning of the accident, and 30 hours later, I was still there.
We didn't know exactly what condition the fuel was in.
Was the core uncovered? Was there core damage? That's why we needed the boron sample.
Boron was very critical in the primary system because boron controlled the reaction that was in the reactor vessel.
So we needed to make sure there was enough boron in the system to shut down the reactor completely.
Nobody was asked to volunteer.
Ed stepped forward.
He was one of my technicians.
So the concern was that no unnecessary radiation exposure occurred for any of the individuals that were involved.
We had everything pre-established, how it was gonna be done, who is gonna do what, no wasted energy, no wasted time.
They were the right people to do it.
There was reports that were incomplete.
Coffee cups sitting there.
Sandwiches that had bites out of them.
It was like the Rapture took place.
There was some radiation monitors that were alarming.
We silenced those.
[Teletector pegging.]
The Teletector pegged tremendously high.
It was definitely a concern.
You know, you have people that depend on you at home.
We decided we were gonna grab the sample, and we were just gonna be fast about doing it.
[Teletector pegging louder.]
[Teletector pegging faster.]
And that's when I sort of became, uh pretty contaminated.
On a weekly basis, you're allowed point-three rem.
When my badge was read, it came out to be two-point-eight rem.
Almost a hundred times what you're allowed to have.
It was hours that I was in the shower trying to get rid of the contamination.
[water stops.]
And, uh it didn't work very well.
I was still contaminated when I came home.
I wouldn't touch my kids.
But, uh Excuse me.
It's still just a guess, how much he was exposed to.
Boy needs a big pat on the back 'cause he did it willingly.
And their sample confirmed the boron concentration was way low.
The plant was not in stable condition.
Earlier today, it was very hot and radioactive inside the plant.
One million times more radioactive than normal.
The plant is not cooling down as fast as would normally be expected.
Uh, the cooling down [Joyce.]
It was a very sobering thing finding out how dangerous this really is.
But also we were getting such conflicting information.
And I couldn't believe that many journalists from all over the world came into our small town.
[speaking French.]
And a lot of them felt like I felt, "We're not being told the truth, or at least the total truth.
" [Ira.]
By the second day, people realized the press conferences were bullshit.
You saying there's no China Syndrome possibility at all? I'm saying we don't have any China Syndrome possibility with the events that occurred at Three Mile Island over the past two days.
And at that point everybody turned into an investigative reporter.
Why should the public believe that something like this would not happen again? They all wanted to just go after 'em.
How long was the core uncovered? We don't know that.
On what authority then do you tell us that we could not find ourselves in something more serious? [Jack.]
There are no guarantees.
There's no guarantee, sir, that you won't be struck by a meteorite tomorrow.
And if there would be any safety defects, ask the NRC.
I am sure they would take action to see to it that those things are immediately corrected or the plant would be shut down.
At the time of the Three Mile Island accident, I was in the NRC headquarters in Washington.
And the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's job was to oversee the nuclear power industry to ensure that public health and safety was maintained.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission is monitoring the situation at their headquarters in Washington.
We knew we were getting off-site radiation levels, but for the first day and the second day, this chain of very imperfect communications, with very imperfect information to start from, basically left people very much in the dark.
Workers said the level of radiation was still not dangerous.
Members of Congress are quite agitated about the accident, wondering if something like it could happen in their own states and districts.
So there was a quick hearing today.
We knew this was very serious, but in the media frenzy it was this perfect storm of information being misunderstood and misused.
Things can just go crazy.
How close did we come to a core meltdown, to a China Syndrome? Could it have happened? I don't think so.
I think we were nowhere near it.
People had all seen China Syndrome.
That immediately is portrayed in the public as "Jane Fonda's meltdown," which was disconnected from what reality was.
We're going to focus on nuclear power, that almost [Lake.]
So fear in the community never should have happened.
The NRC told a Congressional committee that the danger to the public was never serious.
This could be a terrible black eye for the nuclear industry as a viable energy option for the future.
The Carter Administration has pinned considerable hope on nuclear power to fill the energy gap during coming years.
The question now arises, just what will happen to more peaceful use of the atom? [Paul.]
It was 10:00 p.
, I was in my office.
A call was put through.
It was one of the NRC inspectors that I had met during the day.
And he said, "I'm calling from my motel room.
" "Please don't use my name, but I want you to know that I think you've been given a slightly misleading impression about what's happening in the plant.
" "In fact, things are much worse than you may have been led to believe.
" "There is much more serious core damage, uh, and the consequences could be very long-term.
" "Months, if not years.
" And he hung up.
[speaking indistinctly.]
That framed what happened thereafter because we now begin to doubt that the NRC that had come on to the site was actually being straight with us.
[reporter 1.]
Inside the Three Mile Island plant itself, officials of the Metropolitan Edison, the operators, and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission say the level of radiation is extremely high, that's inside the facility.
And they confirm there is a continued release of radioactive gases.
[reporter 2.]
In a nearby van, scientists were analyzing radiation from air, water, and vegetation samples.
At this point, after three days, there was an increase in radiation going to the public, and it was actually going up with time.
Not a lot, but enough to be concerned about.
Radiation levels outside Three Mile Island are no higher than a dental X-ray, according to Pennsylvania state officials, which they say justifies the decision not to evacuate the surrounding area.
It was the NRC's responsibility to make a recommendation if evacuation should be needed.
So, we're looking ahead to what might be some trip point or some significant thing that would call for evacuation.
So I did this analysis at that point, based on these projections for off-site releases.
I came up with 1,200 millirem per hour, which would be extremely high.
But if levels get that high, that might be a reason for an evacuation.
[teletector pegging.]
It's going! Get up! [reporter.]
Levels as high as 1,200 millirem per hour were detected in the cloud of gas.
I was shocked.
The helicopter was reporting 1,200 millirem per hour, and the whole tenor of the room changed.
Met-Ed disagrees with assessments that the reactor is out of control.
The discussion in Washington headquarters became, "Is this really worthy of an evacuation?" [Michio.]
If you're evacuating, you're leaving towns, businesses, homes unprotected, emptied.
The looting opportunities would be enormous.
[ominous music playing.]
Even in a planned evacuation, people lose their lives, children in incubators, old folks on life support systems, accidents.
Okay, so there's a report [speaking indistinctly.]
[speaking indistinctly.]
Hey, chief.
It was a serious concern because we had to figure out, "What can we tell the public?" There was consideration today in the governor's office in Pennsylvania of a possible evacuation of almost one million people who live in Harrisburg and other towns, villages, and farms in the area.
I got phone calls.
"What are you doing there? You need to get out of there!" [reporter.]
The Vice President of Metropolitan Edison says, "Residents have nothing to worry about.
" [Joyce.]
I became very angry at the prospect of not being able to make good decisions based on what was happening.
All that we love dearly is sitting right here under those stacks.
People within a ten-mile area of Three Mile Island have been put on alert for the possibility that an evacuation may be ordered.
It was eerily quiet.
But then you'd have a fire truck or a police car with bullhorns giving us conflicting information.
Close all windows and doors! They'd tell you, "If you live in a brick house, keep your windows open," and then they'd say, "Close your windows.
" [Rick.]
They were spinning the population up, then spinning them down.
It was, "You may have to run.
" "Uh, you don't have to run.
" [firefighter.]
At this time, there's no evacuation.
All they managed to do was confuse all the people that lived in the area.
It's a lot worse than what they're telling us.
Typical lies.
They ought to close those nuclear power plants down.
What if they come up and told you the truth now? They gotta cover up something.
[siren blaring.]
And suddenly this siren goes off, and it doesn't stop.
You had no idea what was going on.
At that point, Governor Thornburgh was asking the NRC, "Should we evacuate?" [Dick.]
He's addressing the group But there was disagreement within the Nuclear Regulatory Commission of whether they were making the right decisions.
[NRC official.]
Let me say frankly, no plant has ever been in this condition, no plant's ever been tested or analyzed in this condition.
I think we ought to be moving people.
But not yet, I don't think They've had two days to get ready, and they're scared.
The government, the NRC, utility officials were playing Russian roulette.
The future of nuclear energy, and the lives of millions of people were hinging on the state of that reactor.
[NRC official.]
I don't know what we're protecting at this point.
I think we ought to be moving people.
[dramatic music playing.]

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