Extracting Truth from Power: A Tale of Two Quaker Ladies

In March, 1979, Beverly Hess of Lancaster (Pa.) Meeting, along with her husband Dick, was preparing to head to Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. They did so with trepidation. The drama of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant crisis had just started to unfold. Beverly and Dick lived 15 miles down-wind from TMI and were worried that they might never be allowed or able to return to their secluded home in the woods. Swarms of media representatives, atomic energy experts, and politicians began to gather around the island in the Susquehanna River where a cloud of unknowing was being generated, along with rumors and frightening speculations. Rumors of impending evacuation of un-specified areas around the crippled reactor, and the fear of contamination of the mighty Susquehanna River that was flowing past were rife in the media and the rumor mills.

Public relation spokesmen were assuring the people that the experts were getting the system under control. All the while, the local fire companies and school officials were preparing evacuation plans. This coincided with stories that were cropping up in the news media of high radiation being measured in the neighborhood coming from escaped radioactive materials. United States senators, President Carter, and other politicians checked in and gave reassurances to the public that things were "under control," and that there was no danger of the dreaded meltdown. But facts and details were missing. When Pennsylvania Senator Heinz was asked at a public meeting, "What would be the probable consequences of a melt-down of a million Kilowatt nuclear reactor?" he replied: "Absolutely catastrophic."

Beverly and Dick began to solicit concerned activists and home owners to join an effort to penetrate the fog of information handouts and press releases. They immediately bumped into a stone wall. Journalists and neighbors affected by the crisis were excluded from ongoing inquiry, much less a front seat at the chaos and near-panic taking place within the control rooms and the power station.

Beverly called her new fledgling organization, the Susquehanna Valley Alliance (SVA), set up a small office in the basement of Lancaster Friends Meeting, and openly solicited the involvement of concerned citizens and home owners from the area surrounding the crippled nuclear plant. Public meetings were held periodically in the Lancaster Friends Meetinghouse and elsewhere around the Harrisburg area and citizens were encouraged to pressure the news and inquiry process, and to get involved at the grass-roots level to disseminate valid information. Day-to-day operations were handled by an elected group with limited term limits so no one would be left holding the bag as interest inevitably fell and problems were resolved.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, entrusted with guiding the nuclear industry in the United States, began hearings to determine just what was happening, what was being done to get the situation under control, and to develop programs to prevent future accidents. The SVA requested to sit in on the hearings as concerned, involved, and threatened citizens, but were told that the public and the press were not allowed to participate or observe NRC meetings or deliberations.

Lancaster Meeting’s newly minted lawyer, Jean Kohr, volunteered to see if she could find a way to open up the process. She began to investigate the limits of public inquiry and the exclusion of citizens from governmental inquiries and then filed suit in federal court to open the process. Somehow, she got an almost an immediate hearing on the issue. The court ruled against the NRC and ruled that the press and the public must have access to the inquiry.

This inquiry, which summoned workers and supervisors to testify as to their actions and knowledge of the problem, revealed a gross inaptitude on the part of many of the workers, technical supervisors, and power company executives who had been reassigned from coal-powered power stations to nuclear power stations.

These verbatim hearings were eventually compiled into a book that was published by the NRC that went into chilling detail about the confusion in the control room, the contradictory orders given, and the cover-up of the hydrogen explosion that occurred within the containment building.

This hydrogen explosion did not breach the building, as happened in the recent Japan nuclear disaster. The containment building was built to withstand a direct hit from a passenger jet, as it sat under the approach path to the Harrisburg International airport.

The hydrogen explosion occurred because the core material heated up to a hot enough temperature to disassociate hydrogen from oxygen in the remaining water in the reactor core, indicating that the core was in a state of un-cooled melt down. It was later found that the radioactive material actually melted two-thirds of the way through the steel containment vessel. Senator Heinz’s "absolute catastrophe" was narrowly avoided.