Three Mile Island (1979)

Three Mile Island (1979)

On March 28, 1979, the eastern United States faced the threat of a nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power facility in Middletown, Pennsylvania, twenty-five miles southeast of Dickinson College, on the Susquehanna River. The crisis originally began when a valve opened unnoticed, and allowed thousands of gallons of coolant water to flow from one of the plant's reactors. This caused temperatures within the unit to raise to over 5000 degrees, causing the fuel core to begin to melt. The threat of the overheated reactor and leaking radiation had an immediate impact on the College.

As news of the accident was broadcast on national television, hundreds of phone calls from worried parents summoned their children home for safety, and the College was forced to cancel classes for one week when over 40% of its students returned home. Eight other Pennsylvania campuses also suspended classes as a result of the TMI threat. As the possibility of consequences grew, College president Samuel A. Banks organized a command center at the College. Physicists on campus, including John Luetzelschwab and Priscilla Laws, brought together a student group to monitor radiation levels, and found that there was no detectable radiation from the TMI accident in the Carlisle area. Physicists also advised local emergency management authorities on radiation monitoring and safety. For the students who remained on campus, the faculty organized special seminar classes that dealt with issues of nuclear power. The sociology department, under Lonna Malmsheimer, had students out in the community, interviewing residents of the area to collect reactions to the accident. The physics department, led by Luetzelschwab, held discussions on the effects of radiation, and the geology department mediated discussions on the implications of a meltdown of a nuclear reactor. Two anthropologists conducted a study of the "Black Humor" the crisis created.

During this time, Dickinson College was designated to provide emergency care for five hundred nursing home patients who had been evacuated as a result of the TMI incident. The College also served as a staging area for five hundred fire fighters in case of the development of a more serious radiation hazard. In the weeks following the incident, enterprising students designed and sold scores of tee shirts bearing the legend, "I survived TMI....I think."

For more information, please visit Dickinson College's Three Mile Island web site.

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Dickinson College Archives
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