For tellers at a Shrewsbury, Pennsylvania bank, the final days of March 1979 should have felt like business as usual. Instead, they were sheer chaos: customers piled up, trying to withdraw money in the days before ATMs.
“Customers were stopping by with their cars packed up to flee, withdrawing their cash,” recalled bank teller Bailey Brown in 2014. “One even showed me the diamond necklace she bought; she figured we were all going to die and she wouldn’t have to pay for it!”
Shrewsbury wasn’t under evacuation orders during the nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island. But people were evacuating from the town 40 miles away from the power station anyway. The response by local, state and national officials had been so alarming—and confusing—that the public didn’t know what to think.
The disaster itself was made worse by human error. And the botched public response was no different. During the tense days following the accident, conflicting reports and recommendations made it hard to know what to believe. Was the area on the verge of a China Syndrome-style catastrophe, or was it just fine to stay at home?
Today, the response to the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis is considered a textbook example of what not to do during an emergency. But before 4:00 a.m. on the morning of March 28, 1979, nobody had made adequate plans as to how to respond to an accident at the nuclear power plant. That morning, a chain reaction began inside one of Three Mile Island’s nuclear reactors. Due to a constellation of mechanical and human errors, the reactor’s automatic cooling system didn’t cool down the reactor as expected, and a partial meltdown occurred. For hours, the radioactive core of the reactor was left uncovered, causing radiation levels to spike throughout the facility.
It took until nearly 7:00 a.m. for reactor staff to notify local and state authorities about the situation, and at 7:24 a.m., an emergency was declared. But though officials had begun responding to what they considered to be an emergency, the outward-facing message downplayed the danger. The day after the partial meltdown occurred, an official from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) told the public the danger had passed.
But that wasn’t what officials were told. By the night of March 29, they’d been briefed on the radiation and told that the reactor had suffered more damage than previously thought. And on March 30, there was a radiation release that provoked even more confusion. Different agencies relayed conflicting information as to whether an evacuation should happen. After waffling, the NRC advised everyone within 10 miles of the power plant to stay inside. A few hours later, the NRC said pregnant women and small children should leave the area. Other residents were told to remain inside.
Meanwhile, all hell was breaking loose at the facility as a hydrogen bubble in the reactor threatened to trigger an explosion. That evening, officials faced facts: They might need to evacuate everyone within a 20-mile radius, an order that would affect over 600,000 people in six surrounding counties.
“What to do?” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “Lock up and leave? Wait and hope for the best? Wait to be told to evacuate? On a broader level, the incident on Three Mile Island, once a recreation area, has disrupted every aspect of civil and private life in a five-county area around the state capital.”
But what residents may not have realized was that there were no evacuation plans. “Plans to evacuate [nearby residents] were made during the TMI accident,” noted the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a 1980 report on the disaster. As conflicting reports continued to circulate, local agencies made reactive plans they had no idea if they would have to carry out.
Some local residents weren’t going to risk it. About 40 percent of people who lived within 15 miles of Three Mile Island evacuated themselves, order or no order. And officials sparred on the evacuation orders that had been issued. Governor Dick Thornburgh came under fire for supposedly hesitating to evacuate women and children. “My information is that he was dragged kicking and screaming to the decision to evacuate women and children,” U.S. Rep. Bob Carr told the AP.
Thornburgh’s aides denied the claims, saying the governor had made a “scientific decision” to go forward with the evacuation. In fact, the governor had asked the government for a single point person because he was receiving so much conflicting advice. President Jimmy Carter responded by dispatching Harold Denton, a nuclear safety expert, to coordinate the response.
Though Denton’s presence helped officials get their story straight, and prompted a speedier resolution to the crisis, the public’s panic wasn’t over yet. Area priests stoked fears by granting “general absolution”—a blanket forgiveness of sins to church attendees, an act only reserved for use in wartime or extremely dangerous situations. Local state parks and the Red Cross began to prepare for a mass exodus. As nuclear stock values plummeted, the Federal Reserve shipped cash to the area in armored cars to help banks keep up with the demands of evacuating people. And in preparation for a potential crisis situation, hospitals began to admit only emergency cases.
It took until April 4 for officials to announce that a hydrogen bubble wouldn’t burst, and April 9 for the evacuation order for women and children to be lifted. By then, the response to the disaster had raised serious concerns. In the years after the disaster, the behavior of local and federal officials and the area’s evacuation plans were carefully scrutinized.
Dozens of reports and analyses came to the same conclusion—that the response was even worse than the disaster itself. In the wake of the accident, public distrust of the nuclear power industry grew. The NRC changed its emergency preparedness plans, including creating an emergency center that was staffed 24/7 instead of relying on hastily created response committees during disasters.
Today, the crisis is still analyzed as an example of what not to do when it comes to an emergency situation. And for people who live in the area, the disaster hasn’t been forgotten. The station permanently closed on September 20, 2019, and no one died as a result of the disaster, although the potential health fallout of the disaster is still debated.