Energy: Legacy off Three Mile Island

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Karen Kasmauski / Corbis

A year after the accident, the memories — and the scars — remain

One of the first correspondents to arrive on the scene of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island last March, TIME New York Bureau Chief Peter Staler spent the best part of the next six weeks in Middletown, Pa., covering the near disaster and its aftermath. On the eve of the accident's anniversary, Staler returned to Middletown to see how the community had been affected. His report:

The region just southeast of Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania capital, looks no different than it did a year ago. The four huge cooling towers that mark the location of Metropolitan Edison's Three Mile Island nuclear plant still loom 372 ft. above the surface of the Susquehanna and catch the eye of every motorist topping the hill at Swatara and heading south on Route 283. The fields surrounding the neat farmhouses on either side of the road are as brown as they always are in March and covered with a stubble that suggests a two-day growth of beard. Middletown, a community of 11,000 whose residents farm, work at the Fruehauf factory, or teach at the local state university campus, looks as scrubbed and businesslike as ever.

With nothing more lasting than a sort of perverse pride, Middletown survives the floods that have sent the Susquehanna into more than a few local living rooms. But a year after the nuclear plant accident that transformed Three Mile Island's cooling towers from local landmarks into symbols of the atomic age's worst nightmare, Middletown carries its scars. "You don't go through what we did and emerge unscathed," said Mrs. Joan Metz, 33, who lives seven miles from T.M.I. "The kids didn't understand what was happening. But we did. And we'll remember."

Just after 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, there was a minor pump failure in T.M.I.'s 880-megawatt Unit 2, and the ensuing combination of mechanical malfunctions and operator errors turned what should have been a harmless incident into a potential disaster. The memory lingers, although the main evidence of the accident is hidden. People driving past the plant, which occupies a low island just downstream from Middletown, cannot see the trailers and temporary structures that have turned the site into something resembling a gypsy camp. Nor can the transient get much idea of the activity under way on the island as a work force that occasionally numbers several hundred proceeds with the painstaking task of clearing away the mess left behind by the accident.

The repair work, which Met-Ed officials estimate will cost nearly $400 million, is already several months behind schedule. The recovery crews have removed and decontaminated about a quarter of the 425,000 gal. of radioactive water that spilled into one of Unit 2's auxiliary buildings. Construction workers are building a dump — actually a collection of huge vats set in concrete and covered with concrete slabs — to store these wastes on the island until a permanent disposal site can be found.

Last week company workers took the first step toward decontaminating Unit 2's containment building, where some 600,000 gal. of radioactive water cover the floor to a depth of 7 ft. Right after the accident, the radiation level there was a searing 30,000 rems per hour. It has since dropped to a merely dangerous 200 rems just above the surface of the water. Covered from head to toe in radiation-resistant protective clothing, three engineers entered an air lock, though not the containment building itself, and during the course of a 20-min. stay took radiation readings that will help determine how soon technicians can get in and see the damaged reactor. "It's a long, slow process," admitted Met-Ed Vice President Robert Arnold. "We haven't made as much progress as we had hoped."

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