This article appeared in the April 21, 1979 edition of The Nation.
Residents near the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meet the fallout threat with uncommon grace and even humor.
Once again reporters proved that when there is a disaster, or the potential of a big one, they come in huge numbers. But residents here faced the radioactive fallout and threat of complete annihilation with a suicidal grace, calmly resigning themselves to the situation regardless of the consequences.
Robert Fine, a rig operator from Harrisburg, was in a small diner 30 miles outside the city on Friday, March 30, contemplating the radioactivity down the road. "I bombed babies and children in World War II so I guess I’m getting what I deserve," he said. "I have lived a full life. It has to end sometime."
At the Harrisburg train station one woman started to flee the town, then changed her mind and walked back home. "I’ll melt before I’ll leave," she said.
This gallows humor displaced much of the fear and brought the people together to share the common experience. A radio disk jockey introduced records with "and here’s some fallout for those of you craving isotopes," as he played songs with appropriate titles–"Hot Child in the City," "Hot Line," "Disco Inferno." Bars in nearby Middletown, fearing the worst, closed on Friday. One bar was open, but deserted, with a bottle of scotch on a table next to a newspaper headlined "Fallout."
The people here were determined not to be driven out by an unseen enemy. It is hard to decide whether this was a good attitude when nuclear disaster was an imminent possibility. Reports of radioactive leakage raged throughout the week. Most of the residents didn’t believe what they couldn’t see. They were not burying their heads in the sand, but at the same time they also were not being flexible to life’s changing situations.
With all the portents of doom for Pennsylvania, journalists were stymied on how to cover the story. Since the accident on March 28, the media has relied on a handful of public relations men for their information on what was occurring at the Three Mile Island nu-clear power plant. "This is the worst case of pack journalism I have ever seen," said Curtis Wilkie, White House correspondent of The Boston Globe. "The press is greedily gobbling up whatever the public relations people tell it. It is just one big game."
One journalist who watched the whole event with amused detachment was Michael Gray, who wrote the script for the movie The China Syndrome, about a fictional nuclear reactor mishap. Gray, a bearded and abrasive Californian with a small gold ring in one ear and a large white hat on his head, went unrecognized. He had listened to the daily, developments and felt he had to come here to see for himself.
Gray’s movie idea came from articles he wrote during the late 1950s on Lockheed’s "Electra" plane. Gray says that the Electra was the plane of the day, the safest and fast-est one on the market. The plane had been tested hundreds of times for possible defects and it had been perfect. It was perfect, Gray says, except for the "cracks between the system." Mathematically, the odds of an accident happening are one in a million. But one day, the ‘speed of the plane combined with the wind velocity combined with the plane’s altitude, caused the plane to crash. Checks done afterward could not immediately determine what happened. Gray, however, understood. No machine is perfect. Eventually it will fail.