In the spring of 1979 I was pretty much what most 22-year-old guys are; clueless yet unabashed, barbarous in an oversocialized, post-industrial sort of fashion. I was also attending a small private college in south-central Pennsylvania. Like many of my peers I was concerned with my social life more than learning, with getting laid more than getting educated. In short, I was what a young nomad would have been had he been de-loused and shoved into Topsiders and a polo shirt and told to stop riding across other people's grazing lands.
I was a dope. A fairly socialized, relatively educated dope, but a dope nonetheless.
So I can't say it was surprising that I hadn't the slightest idea on this day 38 years ago that as I was lazing about sleeping in my old bedroom in my parent's house on a Spring Break vacation Wednesday that about sixty miles to the northwest, at the Three Mile Island power station, reactor TMI-2 was melting down.
It was four in the fucking morning; who was getting up that early on a vacation weekday..?
Here's the sad, funny part of this story, though.
You can read the accounts of "Three Mile Island" to get the history; it's a bit beyond this post, which is just a personal momento nuki. The accident was more frightening than actually dangerous but it was frightening, and a fairly broad swath of central Pennsylvania (and, I think, even a bit of north-central Maryland) was warned that a deadly radioactive cloud might descend at any time in the manner of one of those Fifties mutant-monster films. The governor of Pennsylvania issued some sort of evacuation order which was widely ignored, and the public response was entirely determined by individual threshold levels of nuclear panic.
Young Chief, being, as noted above, a clueless git, had no panic because he had no clue. Literally; I didn't turn on the news or bother to read the newspaper. I had no idea what the fresh hell was going on along the banks of the Susquehanna River. Armored in that impervious ignorance I bagged up my clean laundry and shoved it in my father's secondhand Ford Pinto station wagon (all I could afford as college transportation and quite the babe-magnet it was, I tell you. Ugh.) that Friday. I had a couple of exams early in the next week, and my plan was to return to the dorm to get a weekend of studying in away from the fleshpots of Kennett Square, PA.
I won't pretend that my college, even in the coke-and-disco-fueled Seventies, was the sort of girls-gone-wild party school of college films so I wasn't really surprised that the campus was dark and quiet on an end-of-break Friday night. What was surprising, however, was that the outside door of my dorm was locked.
The exterior doors of dorms were never locked. They just weren't. Not only was it some sort of fire code rule there were always at least a handful of people who needed to go in and out. I recall yanking on the door handle in a sort of irritated disbelief. The fuck..? Who the hell locks a damn dorm door? Must be some sort of prank; the north side door will be open.
Except it wasn't. And on the walk around the outside I began to wonder. My school was pretty dead socially, but...not this dead. West of my dorm was the broad open space hemmed with classroom buildings, underclass dorms, and the student union. Even on the deadest of dead evenings there should have been someone walking across the oval; a couple going to the U, random library-seekers. Someone.
Not that evening.
I don't recall exactly what tuition was running in those days. Certainly much less than the current nearly-quarter-million it costs for four years there today. But for 1979 the costs were steep, so you'd think that after three years I'd have received enough of that expensive education to have figured out that something wasn't right. But you'd have underestimated the thickness of young Chief's skull. I ambled over to the union to find it dark and locked. The geology building? Locked. The freshman dorm across the oval? Yep; darkened and locked.
Finally I did what I should have done first; I wandered over to the campus cop shop. There, finally, was a light, and open door, and an extremely indifferent looking guy in a uniform.
"Ummm...where the heck is everybody?" I whined.
The law, in its impartial majesty, lowered his newspaper and looked at me with a perfect combination of boredom, amusement, and irritation.
"Not here. Campus is closed."
"Closed? What? Why?"
Irritation and boredom were replaced with mild disbelief.
"Because of the nuclear plant blowing up. You don't know about that?"
"Uh, no. What nuclear plant?"
"That one over by Harrisburg, on the river. Something happened, there's a warning, campus is closed until the warning is cancelled."
"The...what the hell? What am I supposed to do?" Now Officer Friendly looked at me with a frown that matched his increasing contempt for my stupidity.
"Go the hell home, kid. Before your balls start to glow in the dark."
So I did. My parents were surprised, and immediately called my kid sister (going to school at another small private college some ways to the north and west of Three Mile Island) to ensure that she was not in immediate danger of nuclear irradiation. She wasn't.
Nobody was, as it turns out.
Military reactors, and most commercial nuclear plants in Europe as well as Japan (where the cost of and access to fossil fuels mean that nuclear power is a much larger part of the power grid), are typically made as part of a mass-produced, standardized series. Reactors and their controls are alike - or identical - in the same way that automobiles of a particular model are alike or identical. Construction is simplified, operations are predictable, and lessons learned from failures can be quickly standardized and disseminated through the production run.
Most U.S. commercial reactors are one-offs, designed and constructed individually (or, at best, very small series of two or three or modifications from an earlier design) for each plant. So Massachusetts' Connecticut Yankee plant's reactors are different from Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island that are different from Oregon's Trojan. Every new plant reinvents the nuclear wheel, making the opportunities for design or operating flaws much greater.
Ironically, TMI-2 was an 879 MWe pressurized water reactor designed and constructed by the firm of Babcock & Wilcox. This type of reactor had a failure identical to the 1979 accident two years earlier at the Davis-Besse plant in Ohio. The Ohio reactor was running at a very low level compared to TMI-2, so the core didn't melt down...but the valve failure wasn't recognized as a design flaw or the problem diagnosed and that diagnosis sent to the other plants operating this type of reactor.
So two years later I got to wander around in the dark wondering where the hell everybody had gone.
If there's a lesson here, I'm not sure what it is, other than "young men are stupid".
But recruiting sergeants have known that since Ramses' regimental sergeant-major bought the village plowboys their first jug of palm wine.
Perhaps it's "Contractors whose sole purpose is profit are stupid so long as it profits them to be."
Although I'll bet pharoah's sergeants could have told you that about contractors, too.