Three Mile Island: How it sounded on KYW Newsradio 40 years ago

Jim Melwert
March 25, 2019 - 5:00 am

Part 1 of a five-part series. Thursday marks 40 years since the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant outside Harrisburg. KYW Newsradio is taking a look back at the near-catastrophe while also looking at the future of nuclear power.

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — It started around 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, in Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor.

This is what it sounded like on our air 40 years ago:

"This breaking story has just come in: State Police in Harrisburg have been called to the Three Mile Nuclear Plant, about 10 miles southeast of Harrisburg, where plant officials have called a general emergency.”

Related:

The pumps used to cool down the reactor's core stopped working. The reactor shut down, and pressure began to build.

A relief valve opened to release that pressure, but instead of closing when the pressure got back to normal, it got stuck open.

“If at the time this valve failed the crew in the control room had taken a five-minute coffee break, the computers monitoring the system would have corrected the mistake and probably shut down the reactor safely without any incident,” said Richard Maloney.

Jay Lloyd (left) and Richard Maloney
Jim Melwert/KYW Newsradio

Maloney along with Jay Lloyd and Sandy Starobin covered the partial meltdown for KYW Newsradio. He says, unfortunately, the humans stayed in the control room.

“The problem occurred when the engineers overcame the automatic system of the computers and compounded the problem,” he said. “That's when it got out of hand.”

This image from the 1979 Nuclear Regulatory Commission Annual Report shows the control room for Three Mile Island Unit 2.
1979 Nuclear Regulatory Commission Annual Report

Maloney spent time on a nuclear submarine while in the Navy, which gave him an understanding of the technology.

"I had overconfidence in the security — in the physical security of running a nuclear plant," he explained, "because of the way the Navy was able to secure theirs, unaware of the human element at Three Mile Island, which greatly contributed to the accident in the first place."

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Over the course of this week, we'll have much more from Maloney and other KYW reporters who were at Three Mile Island, along with a look at the rumor mill and news coverage on such a grand scale in the days before the internet, and a look at the future of nuclear energy.