Rumors of Three Mile Island nearly reached mass hysteria

Jim Melwert
March 26, 2019 - 5:00 am
An undated photo of men working at the Three Mile Island power plant.

Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record/USA Today Images

Part 2 of a five-part series. As we mark the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island, KYW Newsradio is looking back at the near-catastrophe that focused the world’s attention on a small town outside Harrisburg while changing the general perception of nuclear energy.

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — The first news reports didn’t say much other than, “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.”

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“It was very vague, the information for the first few hours was very vague,” said KYW Newsradio's Richard Maloney, who was part of the team that covered Three Mile Island. He says the first public information came from Metropolitan-Edison vice president Jack Herbein.

“He came out and said that everything was under control, there'd been no radiation leak and there was no problem. The problem was that he lied," Maloney said. 

In a news report, KYW Newsradio late Harrisburg Bureau Chief Sandy Starobin said on air 40 years ago, “The president of Metropolitan-Edison insisted there was no danger from Three Mile Island.”

“Unfortunately, the credibility for Met-Ed collapsed and was never to be regained during the entire incident. And it kind of set the scene for how the nuclear industry was going to be perceived then throughout that crisis and forever more. They lost their trust," Maloney said. 

There are a few things to remember when looking back 40 years.

First, this is pre-internet and before 24-hour cable news. 

And, a movie starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas called "The China Syndrome" had just hit movie theaters 12 days earlier.

"People flocked to see the movie and then the next thing you know, they get a bulletin on KYW and they're hearing this on radio and TV and seeing the newspapers of this nuclear plant mishap," said KYW Newsradio's Jay Lloyd. 

John Savoth while he was a student at Dickinson College. His college was 20 miles away from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.
Courtesy of John Savoth

John Savoth was a sophomore at Dickinson College, located about 20 miles from the power plant. 

“Rumors were starting to fly that livestock and animals were dying closer to Three Mile Island," Savoth said.

 They weren’t. 

Maloney credits two men with preventing mass hysteria: former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh and Harold Denton from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. 

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Over the course of this week, we'll have much more from Maloney and other KYW Newsradio reporters who were at Three Mile Island, along with a look at Gov. Dick Thornburgh and Harold Denton, and the future of nuclear energy. 

CORRECTION: In a previous version of this story, Jack Herbein's name was misspelled.