TENS OF THOUSANDS of the estimated 200,000 people who fled to other parts
of Pennsylvania and even to other states have returned home, but some still
stayed away, waiting for clearer signs the danger had passed.
At a hearing in Washington Thursday, a Congressman and a power company lawyer disagreed over whether the consumers served by the Metropolitan Edison Co., operator and 50 percent owner of the plant, should bear the costs of the accident - estimated to range into the millions of dollars.
Rep. Eugene Atkinson, D-Pa., said rather than the consumer, the power companies - and possibly the federal government, too - should pay for repairs and the replacement of power lost to the accident.
But Gerald Charnoff, a power industry lawyer, said large costs could bankrupt even an electric utility.
That was when officials declared there was a chance of a reactor core meltdown, a nuclear catastrophe that would have threatened the very lives of area residents and ravaged the rolling central Pennsylvania dairy farm countryside.
Gov. Dick Thornburgh said late Thursday he would not lift his recommendation that pregnant women and pre-school children stay outside of a five-mile radius of Three Mile Island because they are particularly vulnerable to its dangers.
"THE NEWS remains encouraging, "Thornburgh said in a statement. "It appears that we may not be close to the time when the women and children who left their homes a week ago can return."
The governor also said schools in the area would remain closed until further notice. Classroom doors were shut last Friday.
Federal and state health officials said radiation levels still were not high enough to cause harm to public safety. Tests indicated milk produced on numerous farms around the plant has not been adversely affected.
Carter cautioned Americans against overreacting to the Three Mile Island crisis.
Earlier, Carter administration officials said the country could not afford to drop nuclear power as a source of energy. Thirteen percent of U.S. energy comes from nuclear generators.
At the plant, meanwhile, engineers took the first steps Thursday leading to a shutdown of the reactor that went haywire last week.
Harold Denton, the NRC's operations chief at the Susquehanna River site, said the 10-day cool-down process began with the gradual removal of gases from the water around the uranium fuel core. This action was to avoid the reformation of a dangerous gas bubble when pressure is lowered.
The high pressure in the reactor kept gases dissolved in the water, like the gas in a bottle of champagne before it is uncorked.
DENTON SAID approval was given to a plan to pump radioactive gases from an auxiliary building into the radiation-filled dome around the reactor. This, he said, should reduce by at least 30 percent the slight level of radiation escaping from the island plant.
The cooling plan now being followed will use in a few days the same natural circulation process Henry Ford used to cool the Model T engine half a century ago.
Hot water from the reactor will flow into a steam generator filled with cooled water. The hot water will become cooler and thus sink and push already cooled water ahead of it back into the reactor to take away more heat from the core. The process will continue without the need for pumps, which might fail.