Newspaper: The Sentinel

Date: April 10, 1979

Article: Governor signals all clear; schools open, safe to return

Author: United Press International


HARRISBURG (UPI) - Schools shut down by the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant reopened today and school life returned to normal.

After an unscheduled recess, the 23 schools in the Susquehanna River Valley that were closed because of radiation leaks from the nuclear facility were back in business.

"I think the kids have had a pretty good lesson about Three Mile Island over the last 10 days," said W. Reed Ernst, superintendent of the Middletown Area School District by the power plant site.

"We were anxious to get back right away. Everything's back to normal now. We're picking up right where we left off," he said.

"THEY SAY THEY hate school, but they're glad to see their friends again and basically I think they like it," said Glenwood T. Solomon, principal of Fink Elementary School down the road from the disabled nuclear reactor.

Michelle Richmond, 7, who stood in the shadow of the Three Mile Island cooling towers waiting for her yellow school bus, was happy to be getting back to her school. Her mother temporarily enrolled her in a school in Williamsport, Pa., 100 miles north.

"I really didn't want her to miss much," she said.

The schools were reopened after assurances from Gov. Dick Thornburgh that the nation's worst commercial nuclear power accident was safely under control. He gave the go-ahead after advice from Harold Denton, chief trouble-shooter on the scene for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In a statement Monday, the governor also advised pregnant women and little children that they could return home within a five-mile radius they fled 10 days ago because of radiation leakage.

ALTHOUGH LEAKS of radiation, such as cancer-causing iodine isotope that showed up in traces of milk samples are still above normal, Denton said they have dropped rapidly toward normal levels.

Radiation readings had decreased to 1 millirem per hour over the plant and .02 millerem per hour on the adjacent banks of the Susquehanna River, he said. A reading of .01 millirem is normal in the area.

"I consider the crisis over today with regard to the core," he said. As an indication, state civil defense authorities, who have been on "full alert" status to evacuate almost 400,000 Harrisburg area residents since the accident, are now "on call" status only.

Only a week ago, experts still believed a core meltdown was possible. That is the worst possible accident that could befall a commercial reactor. Occurring when the core cooling system fails to carry off the heat of radioactive decay, a meltdown could produce a cloud of lethal gases capable of killing thousands and contaminating a wide area. WITH THE MAIN danger averted, technicians concentrated on bleeding gases from the reactor's primary cooling system by means of a delicate thermodynamic balancing act between pressure and temperature.

It was a slow and risky process because excessive gas buildup from too low a temperature or pressure could spawn another explosive bubble in the reactor vessel or damage the piping.

After perhaps one more degassing attempt, the experts will be poised for the final step toward cold shutdown - one that could begin as early as Friday, said Denton.

The two-phased shutdown calls for the reactor temperature to be lowered carefully below the boiling point of water while enough pressure is maintained to prevent gases from coming out of solution.

WHEN THE PRESSURE of the primary coolant water is finally lowered to atmospheric levels, the reactor will be in what Denton called "a benign state."

Robert M. Bernero, an NRC expert, said sporadic leaks of radioactive xenon gas were still occurring, but that they were impossible to control.

Paul Critchlow, Thornburgh' press secretary, confirmed that the NRC had detected higher than normal radiation levels around the plant Monday afternoon, but said there was no cause for alarm.