LANCASTER — In 1979, Hollis Stambaugh was in her fifth year as a city planner and emergency manager in Lancaster.
On March 28, the city received notice of “a pretty serious situation” developing less than 30 miles to the west at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, she said.
“Nobody knew what this meant,” she said. “We just knew we needed to get things together pretty quickly.”
[PHOTO: A Pennsylvania state police officer and plant security guards stood outside the closed front gate to the Metropolitan Edison nuclear power plant on Three Mile Island near Harrisburg after the plant was shut down following a partial meltdown on March 28, 1979. (Paul Vathis/Associated Press)]
Stambaugh began working out a city evacuation plan in collaboration with Art Morris, Lancaster’s public works and emergency management director and future mayor.
“Our jobs overlapped,” Morris said.
The year before, Stambaugh, a Leola native, had begun developing a disaster preparedness plan, but it was still a work in progress.
The questions were myriad. How would residents be notified? How could elderly and handicapped people be moved? What about food and other supplies for officials remaining behind?
“This was absolutely on the fly,” she said. “Evacuating the city wasn’t something that had been planned or anticipated up to this point.”
The city planned to use public buses to evacuate residents, not realizing the county was planning to use them, too, she said.
Things happened very quickly the first few days, Morris said.
Fortunately, though thousands of Lancaster County residents chose to leave on their own, a full evacuation proved unnecessary.
Nevertheless, the incident that began 35 years ago at 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, remains the worst nuclear accident to take place on American soil.
“Three Mile Island was a wake-up call for the industry and the community,” said Eric Epstein, who for decades has been an activist with the citizens group Three Mile Island Alert.
“Three Mile Island’s lesson is that things happen,” said Morris, who became mayor in 1980. “If you think something isn’t going to happen, and you get lazy, that’s a mistake.”
Three Mile Island's Unit 2 had been in operation just a few short months when a pump that controlled the coolant level failed in the early morning hours of March 28.
The resulting pressure buildup caused a valve to open, spilling contaminated water into the containment building.
In the control room, alarms went off and lights flashed, as technicians frantically tried to figure out what was happening, nuclear historian J. Samuel Walker said.
Unfortunately, not a single device in that room could tell the technicians what they needed to know, he said. The system lacked any monitoring device for the valves or the coolant level.
“The accident was an enormously humbling experience for both the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” he said.
In its wake, the industry focused much more attention on operator training and control room design, he said.
Walker grew up in Millersville, but was in Maryland at the time of the accident.
Shortly afterward, he became a government historian specializing in the nuclear industry. In 2006 he published “Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective,” and he is participating in this week’s conference on the incident at Penn State Harrisburg.
Morris was chairman of a citizens panel that met with Nuclear Regulatory Commission officials during the cleanup process.
He said the accident highlighted the importance of the “Seven P’s” of disaster readiness.
“Prior Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Poor Performance,” he said.
The terror attacks of 9/11 further drove home that lesson, he said.
Moreover, there is a renewed realization that people must take individual responsibility to prepare for emergencies,” Stambaugh said.
When something truly terrible happens, “the government is not going to be there immediately to fix things,” she said.
Mayor Rick Gray was a lawyer in private practice in 1979. He said he and his colleagues didn’t take the situation that seriously at first.
Gray’s wife, Gail, on the other hand, was apprehensive. Gray suggested she call her sister, who was involved in the nuclear industry. He figured she’d say there was nothing to worry about.
“Gail went upstairs to call her sister and came down with her bags packed,” he said. She took their three children and drove to Pittsburgh, he said.
“It was scary, it really was,” the mayor said, adding: “We’re a lot more prepared now than we used to be.”
For Epstein, Three Mile Island permanently shifted the dynamics of the debate about nuclear power.
Ordinary people felt betrayed by what they saw as government and corporate lack of transparency about the incident, he said.
Today, citizens are far more assertive about their rights to know about proposed projects. They do their homework, ask informed questions and are far more skeptical of government assurances, he said.
Insurers and investors no longer believe nuclear power makes economic sense, he said. The risks and expenses outweigh the gains.
“Wall Street isn’t betting on nuclear power,” he said.
Today, Three Mile Island’s Unit 1 continues to operate, generating enough power to serve more than 800,000 households.
Meanwhile, hundreds of tons of reactive waste from Unit 2 remain stranded on the facility’s island in the Susquehanna River, Epstein said.
Plans call for it to remain there until Unit 1 is decommissioned, decades from now. The projected cleanup cost is around $900 million, he said.
Exelon Corp. owns and operates Unit 1. It monitors Unit 2 under contract with that unit’s current owner FirstEnergy.
A call Thursday to Exelon seeking comment for this story was not immediately returned.
America goes through periods of infatuation with particular energy sources, Epstein said: coal, nuclear power, and now natural gas.
“We need to be in love with (energy) diversity,” he said.
Three Mile Island was a huge accident, Walker said. Nevertheless, very little radiation was released, far less than Chernobyl or Fukushima, he said. Ultimately, the containment systems held.
For Stambaugh, Three Mile Island shaped her entire subsequent career. A delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors visited Lancaster to see how local government was handling the crisis.
One of the visitors offered her a job. She’s been involved in emergency preparedness ever since and today runs her own company, Hollis Stambaugh Management Consulting, or HSMC.
She’s completed more than 50 post-event analyses of major emergencies, including the Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings and the 2007 Minnesota highway bridge collapse that killed 13 people.
The topics of emergency management and disaster preparedness are vastly better understood than they were in those long-ago days of 1979, she said.
Incident by incident, researchers are refining their understanding.
“There always are lessons learned,” she said.