tv Governor Thornburgh and Three Mile Island CSPAN March 30, 2019 10:48pm-11:01pm EDT
-- may never be fully identified. the kinds of injuries that will live with us for years, perhaps for generations. not all the promotion in the world can erase memory of federal pennsylvania as the place where the worst fear of modern man almost came to pass. announcer: 40 years ago on march 28, 1979, the unit to reactor at the three mile island nuclear power plant in pennsylvania partially melted down. dix thornburgh was pennsylvania's governor at the time. minutes, we 10 visit the university of pittsburgh archive service center to hear more about the accident and governor thornburgh's role. >> our prime concern has been,
is and remains, a concern for the safety of the residents of the area, and of those workers who must carry out the responsibility of decontamination of the unit two facility. the most pressing question is which of the alternatives is the safest? if i'm satisfied that there is an alternative which means that -- meets that description, that i certainly would support it. i am concerned about the safety of this area. ms. watson: we are at the university of pittsburgh hillman library. we are in the thornburgh room, looking at some of the thornburgh collection. dick thornburgh is a pittsburgher from the start. attended law school here. he has gone on to be governor of pennsylvania. u.s. attorney general. in his collection is here now.
his archive collection at the university of pittsburgh. the thornburgh collection is large, which is an understatement, considering it is 1052 cartons of documents. he was elected governor in 1979, and was being sworn in on january 16, 1979. he was there with his hand up being sworn in with his wife beside him. 72 days after his inauguration, he was busy with matters pertaining to the forthcoming budget, meeting with people in the governor's home, when a phone call came at 7:50 a.m. on wednesday, march 28. it was announcing to the new governor that there was an accident at the nearby nuclear plant on three mile island. he realized nuclear accidents had amazing repercussions and
uncertainties and difficulties ahead. and then the next morning, early in the day, his notes referred to having heard mention of a fuel core damage. and consulting through the whole day, that did not change. but what to do was an enigma. thornburgh was well enough read and knew from the very start of an accident at a nuclear plant was something truly serious. immediately, he had to pull together a very small group of people that he could trust to pursue the need that emergency plans for pennsylvania. and he himself had to be sure that the public, once they knew about this accident, was consistently, appropriately, calmly informed. as time went on, trying to understand what happened, the
reports were conflicting. every day, practically every hour, there was a change. this one, for example, says there is absolutely no danger of a meltdown. as he underlines, these were conflicting reports. someone else said there is no radioactive material released. well, there was. and that became known later that day and ongoing. that there was a leak, and radiation had been released. it was a matter of how much they were going to do about it. the company itself reversed its opinions and its statements almost hourly. they weren't useful. and his own personnel at that point were not nuclear experts. rather at seawas until he could find someone to get the real facts.
the news that something had happened on nuclear plant got around the world and the country quickly. reporters came from far and wide. i think by the end of the week, even, there were hundreds of them in the state capital, wanting to know what happened. and the governor himself didn't know at that time. newspaper headlines were just blasting out. u.s. aides see a risk of meltdown at pennsylvania nuclear plant, more regular -- more gases released. and congress is briefed. the nation is getting full information of what happened but does not understand why or what can be done about it. early on, the governor really did not know the ramifications of some of these releases of radiation. he did advise people in the immediate areas to stay inside.
that was a recommendation. also, on friday, which was just two days later, he asked and advised mothers with young children to go off out of the area, and the pennsylvania government provided locations for them to stay. and they did, for some three or four days thereafter. he did consider ordering an evacuation, but he was very cognizant that there was hazard, great hazard, in doing that without suitable planning or under any circumstances. he was loath to do that unless it became specifically unavoidably necessary. thornburgh was able to get telephone communications with the president on friday. and when the president asked what can i do for you, he said i
need scientists and folks from the nuclear regulatory agency to tell me what really is going on. the president said essentially, done. he sent a military helicopter up with 10 people from the nuclear regulatory agency to figure it out and let everyone know. harold denton was an engineer with a nuclear regulatory commission. a very smart man, he had only been employed there for six months. but he was the one assigned to with 10 people from the nuclear regulatory agency to figure it go up there to see what was happening. >> about 100,000 gallons of highly contaminated water in the primary system that's being circulated around the cooling core. all the water that was billed -- that was spilled inside the containment is still inside the containment. roughly 600,000 gallons of highly contaminated water. i see no imminent chance for any of them water being released , but that water has got to be cleaned up, but the water in the
-- both the water in the bottom of the containment in the water that is in the primary system. the walls of the containment have to be washed down and that decontamination must go on. ms. watson: the agency in washington didn't understand how serious it was until harold and the team got there to take a look, and determined it was pretty serious. but ultimately, they were able to ascertain that the so-called bubble was not going to burst. and there was not going to be a meltdown, which is what language was out there for people's fears. as a result of that, assurance from harold denton, the president flew up to harrisburg the next day with mrs. carter and met with harold, the governor, the lieutenant governor, and they actually had a tour of the control room.
this is all because they had assurance it was not going to blow up instantly, of course. they could go and look and talk to the engineers. after the tour of the control room, the president held a press conference, including harold denton and lieutenant governor scranton. it was a poignant, calm statement on his part, commending the population in the area for their careful thinking and caution in the case of the accident, and praising dick thornburgh, the governor. after the president left, and the population or the populace knew there was not going to be an explosion, people who did leave return to their homes. -- returned to their homes. the mothers and children who had been away from their homes for little while returned.
and things began to really be calm. and the news reports were no longer accident meltdown, but thornburgh did a great job. he, in crisis, a builder of confidence. there were many articles like this, where his capacity for handling this really serious event had been so successful and appropriate. once it was determined that there wasn't a leak, not an explosion, not a meltdown, that did not solve the problem, just by understanding that. it took years for engineers to determine how to fix it. fix it and going on did take 10 years and cost $1 billion. after things called in in harrisburg, it then behooved washington to find out what was going to go on, or had gone on. the united states senate, for
example, just in april 19, wrote to governor thornburgh and said we are pleased to invite you to be the leadoff witness in our committee. we would like your presence. and any principal state officials you wish. one of the pages i pulled out here i thought was particularly telling. his quote from his speech was "the toughest decision of all, however, is the one i had to make 24 hours a day throughout the crisis. that was, of course, the decision not to order an evacuation that would have been unprecedented in its nature, as well as its potential for harm." despite having starting off his career as governor, a two-term governor with a massive emergency, his team and his policies, and is balanced
-- and his balanced budgets were favorably received by the state of pennsylvania. in his concluding times, he was very broadly affectionately regarded justly, i think. >> you are watching american history tv. all weekend, every weekend on c-span3. next, lisa keller from the state university of new york illustrateders an talk on women's roles during world war ii. st. paul's