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Grace Under Pressure in Harrisburg | The Nation

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Grace Under Pressure in Harrisburg

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This article appeared in the April 21, 1979 edition of The Nation.

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Residents near the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor meet the fallout threat with uncommon grace and even humor.

Harrisburg, Pennsylvania

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.

Aware of the possible dangers of nuclear plants, Gray began extensive research five years ago into a reactor's workings. Asked about the eerie coincidence of the accident at Three Mile Island and the movie's release, he jokingly denies jimmying the machine. He came, he says, to learn what did go wrong and to observe the response of residents and the plant's workers. Gray's next project will be on the failure of a space shuttle flight.

Together Gray and I searched among the townspeople and workers for individual acts of bravery. Our first stop was at the home of Thomas Kaufman, a control-room operator in reactor room number two, the site of the near-disaster. Kaufman, 26, is a good-looking, muscular man who wears his red hair long. For the last year and a half he worked inside the plant and was often exposed to very small amounts of radiation. But when the accident occurred he was exposed to a massive dose. It was then that he decided to quit. "My girlfriend just didn't want to sleep with a radioactive man anymore," he said.

But Kaufman kept on the job during the crisis. He realized that the danger was very great, but he felt a duty to help, even at the risk of his own health. So the day after the accident he returned to the plant and again entered a highly radioactive area. Kaufman was not trying to prove his macho qualities (many workers openly brag about the radiation levels they have sustained and say that a six-pack of beer could wash it away), he was doing it out of responsibility to humanity.

Outside the plant several workers who did not want to be identified told stories of the man with the presence of mind that saved the day. Ed Frederick, 29, was control-room operator at 4:30 A.M. Wednesday when the flashing light on the console signaled trou-ble. The polishing machine, the unit that purifies the water before it enters the generator, was left open by an employee, causing the air pressure to disappear. Another valve in the auxiliary cooling system was closed, preventing water from entering the nuclear core. Like a scene right from The China Syndrome the dials showed the water level was high while no water was entering the core. The heat was increasing steadily. Frederick quickly considered what the problem could be and acted on his instincts, opening the valves so that the water from the secondary cooling system could quickly enter the generator. His "grace under pressure," which is how Hemingway defined courage, prevented a sure nuclear catastrophe.

Bravery among the residents was less pronounced but, in its own small way, equally dramatic. Grocery owners chose to remain open and provide staples to people needing supplies before leaving town. With the danger on the island still very real, residents did not go on massive pillages, as has happened in cities around the country when their lights went off for a few hours or policemen went on strike. The dreamlike quality of the fear, the unseen assassin in the night ready to strike this fragile city down with a cloud of clear vapor, brought the people together for comfort and safety. Even reporters were affected and, uncharacteristically, shared notes and sources freely.

I felt relieved when I saw the Japanese newsmen on Sunday. If any country knows about the dangers and effects of radioactivity, it is Japan. When the crisis passed people seemed disappointed. Residents had prepared for chaos and death, and, when nothing happened, many felt cheated. Others, like Gray and his companion, Mike O'Sullivan, who had covered three wars and had never felt so frightened in his life as he did in a quiet Holiday Inn room his first night in Harrisburg, were glad it was over. Life imitates art to a point, then the scene shifts to a different movie. Gray didn't want the next imitation to be of Dr. Strangelove.

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