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March 31, 1979 – Continuous news reports – CBS Radio News – Gordon Skene Sound Collection –
March 31, 1979 – All eyes on an otherwise obscure community near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania where the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant facility was in danger of melting down, potentially turning disaster into catastrophe. The accident began on March 28th. At first hardly registering a blip on the concern scale, things escalated quickly and the situation grew steadily worse by the minute. By March 31st, damage control was in full swing, with assurances by everyone from The Nuclear Regulatory Commission to the Governor’s office attempting to calm jitters and allay fears that something truly wrong was going on in Harrisburg.
Joseph Hendrie, the NRC chairman, said at a news briefing that a precautionary evacuation of residents within a 20-mile radius might be necessary if engineers are to attempt to force the bubble out of the reactor. Later, Carter announces plans to visit Three Mile Island the following day .
Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh, receiving conflicting information, advised pregnant women and preschool children to leave the region within five miles of TMI.
Schools in the area close after the advisory. Penn State Harrisburg calls off classes for a week. Many residents decide to leave the area.
Thornburgh asks President Carter to dispatch a single expert upon whom the governor could rely for advice.
Police are placed on alert and residents are told to stay indoors with windows closed and ventilating systems off. Local emergency management agency officials go on the radio to tell people what they should take with them if an evacuation is ordered.
Residents become more nervous as they try to make phone calls but hear no dial tones; lines are overloaded.
Harold Denton, the NRC troubleshooter dispatched by Carter, arrives at Three Mile Island. By now, NRC officials have realized that a hydrogen bubble has formed in the Unit 2 reactor.
Officials say there is a “remote” possibility that the bubble could force down vital cooling water, exposing the reactor core and causing a meltdown.
The Associated Press reported, based on information from several NRC sources, that the hydrogen bubble might become a potentially explosive mixture within days.
Denton assures reporters at a late evening news conference that there “is no imminent catastrophic event foreseeable.” By this evening, one-quarter of the area’s 950,000 residents have packed suitcases, withdrawn savings from banks and fled the area.
And that’s a bit of what went on this day, with many days to go and many nail-biting hours before anything resembling an end to the accident could come in sight.
Here are reports and newscasts from 8:00 am to 9:00 am as it was heard via KNX Newsradio in Los Angeles on March 31, 1979.