Meltdown: A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island: A Reporter's Story

Meltdown: A Race Against Nuclear Disaster at Three Mile Island: A Reporter's Story

by Wilborn Hampton

This riveting eyewitness report—including dramatic photos—takes readers right to the scene of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

March 28, 1979: It was 4 a.m. at the nuclear power plant on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Suddenly, an alarm shrieked. Something was wrong inside the plant. Within minutes, human error and

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This riveting eyewitness report—including dramatic photos—takes readers right to the scene of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

March 28, 1979: It was 4 a.m. at the nuclear power plant on an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Suddenly, an alarm shrieked. Something was wrong inside the plant. Within minutes, human error and technical failure triggered the worst nuclear power accident in the United States, and, within hours, the eyes of the world would be on Three Mile Island. Thirty-four years after the bombing of Hiroshima, the crisis at Three Mile Island re-awoke the world to the dangers of nuclear power, and now, in MELTDOWN, Wilborn Hampton tells the hour-by-hour story of covering the accident as a U.P.I. reporter. His riveting eyewitness account will compel readers to consider one of the most serious questions facing humankind: where can we find affordable, sustainable energy, and at what risk?

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Hampton's (Kennedy Assassinated! The World Mourns: A Reporter's Story) compelling account of the March 28, 1979, Three Mile Island crisis both objectively portrays the history of nuclear energy leading up to that day and offers an engaging, personal, behind-the-scenes viewpoint. The first chapter presents a chilling description of the atomic bomb dropped at Hiroshima, dotted with riveting contemporary reactions from scientists and writers. Hampton effectively makes the transition from the horrors of the bomb to the public's gradual warming up to the idea of atomic energy which later soured in 1979 when the Three Mile Island plant threatened meltdown. He provides insight into the task of a reporter and the camaraderie of the press corps, and delivers the headlines of the time and the emotions of the terrified inhabitants closest to the plant near Harrisburg, Pa., while also giving 20/20 hindsight into the misinformation supplied by the power company and the internal disagreements among government and local scientists. Throughout, powerful black-and-white photographs intensify the drama, though at times the institutional design detracts from the accessibility of the text. While Three Mile Island ultimately averted tragedy, Hampton juxtaposes this with the long-range effects of Chernobyl (just seven years later) and will leave readers pondering weighty ethical questions about the future of atomic power. Ages 10-up. (Oct.) FYI: A reader's guide is available at www. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Children's Literature
At 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, warning lights began to flash in the control room of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant located near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Over the next few days, thousands of local residents from several towns were forced to evacuate their homes as the situation at the reactor spun out of control. While experts struggled to deal with a potential meltdown, government officials assessed the situation. Among the many reporters that descended upon the area was Wilborn Hampton, the author of this chronicle of the near disaster at Three Mile Island. Drawing on his experiences in covering this story, the author traces the events in a journalistic manner. Readers are provided insights into the dangers inherent in nuclear power as they read the story of a nuclear accident that nearly became a disaster. While we live in an age when additional energy sources are needed, there is also a need to remember the events at Three Mile Island. The author also provides a brief overview of the Chernobyl disaster in the Ukraine in order to underscore the stakes involved when a nuclear power plant goes bad. This is a very readable book that will inform readers and challenge them to reflect on what is to be done in the area of energy development. 2001, Candlewick Press, $19.99. Ages 10 up. Reviewer: Greg M. Romaneck
The atomic age began on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico, with the first atomic test. It ushered in an era of uncertainty, when the enormous peaceful potential of nuclear power enthralled some people and terrified those who feared it could be used for mass destruction. When World War II was ended by the atomic devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the power unleashed was stunning. The growing need for clean and cheap electricity produced by nuclear power battled against anxiety over the unthinkable consequences of a nuclear power plant accident. As history shows, the fears of a nuclear power plant accident were realized not once, but twice. Former reporter Hampton, author of Kennedy Assassinated! The World Mourns (Candlewick, 1997), bookends his factual, eyewitness account of the Three Mile Island nuclear power accident between one chapter on Hiroshima and one chapter on Chernobyl. Assigned by United Press International in 1979 to cover developing events at Three Mile Island, Hampton roved rural Pennsylvania with other reporters, searching for an angle. Drawing from these experiences, Hampton unfolds the heightening drama and tells the story as it happened, including his and others' feelings and reactions to what was going on around them. As with all good stories, although the ending is known, one wants to read on to the conclusion. The end of the nuclear stories at Hiroshima and Chernobyl was devastation and destruction. At Three Mile Island, America got lucky—the crisis suddenly was over. Hampton concludes with the observation that as of today, "no one has found a successful and affordable alternative source of energy" to coal and fossil fuels. So, the debate over the use of nuclearpower continues. Middle school and older students should find the facts presented here useful for assignments and might find that the author's eyewitness style will keep them turning pages to the end. Glossary. Index. Illus. Photos. Maps. Further Reading. VOYA CODES: 3Q 2P M J S (Readable without serious defects; For the YA with a special interest in the subject; Middle School, defined as grades 6 to 8; Junior High, defined as grades 7 to 9; Senior High, defined as grades 10 to 12). 2001, Candlewick, 104p, $19.99. Ages 11 to 18. Reviewer: Dolores Maminski SOURCE: VOYA, February 2002 (Vol. 24, No.6)
School Library Journal
Gr 7 Up-Using his gift for capturing dramatic situations in personal stories, this award-winning reporter offers an account of his experiences covering the near meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, PA, in 1979. He sets the stage with an outline of the effect of the Atomic Age on its first victims, the people of Hiroshima, Japan, and the hope of nuclear engineers for energy "too cheap to meter." Hampton's own tale begins with a hasty trip to Harrisburg, not knowing what to expect, followed by the rapid education in nuclear physics that many people got in short order. He vividly recounts the events, reactions to them, and provides one of the clearest accounts available of the technical side of the incident and the dangers the local people faced. He also discusses what happened at Chernobyl and other accident sites. A good selection of informative black-and-white photos accompanies the narrative. The author strives for a balanced view mentioning arguments in favor of nuclear energy as well as people's continuing fear of it. While Christopher Lampton's Nuclear Accident (Millbrook, 1992) and Judith Condon's Chernobyl and Other Nuclear Accidents (RSVP, 2001) provide more detail on those arguments, Hampton's title may well attract more readers with its "you-are-there" perspective. Recommend it to students needing information on the topic and for those considering a career in journalism or public affairs.-Jonathan Betz-Zall, City University Library, Everett, WA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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Product Details

Candlewick Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
8.75(w) x 10.50(h) x 0.58(d)
1090L (what's this?)
Age Range:
10 - 12 Years

Read an Excerpt

The trouble had started around 4 a.m. two days earlier, on Wednesday, March 28. Two workers named Craig Faust and Ed Frederick were nearing the end of what had been a quiet and uneventful overnight shift in the brand-new Unit No. 2 reactor at the Metropolitan Edison nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island, on the Susquehanna River. They had just carried out a routine check of the panels monitoring the reactor, and everything was working normally.
Suddenly warning lights began to flash in the control room and an alarm shrieked. Faust and Frederick raced to see what was wrong. Blinking red lights on one of the panels told them that two water pumps had failed. Without a constant flow of water to cool the reactor, heat was rapidly building up inside it.
This was a serious problem, but it was not a cause for panic. There was an emergency backup water flow built into the plant to take over in case of such malfunctions and keep the reactor cool. However, those first warning lights and siren were only the beginning of what became a dangerous situation in less than a minute.
Fifteen seconds after the primary water pumps failed, a valve became stuck in the open position. Radioactive steam and water began to spill into one of the reactor’s tanks, draining off the water needed to cool the fuel rods in the core. Fifteen seconds after that, the emergency backup water system that would cool the unit failed because the maintenance crew that had gone off duty earlier had forgotten to open three other, hand-operated valves.
With water leaking out through the open valve and the emergency water flow being blocked by the closed valves, no water was reaching the fuel rods, which are supposed to be covered in water at all times. And no one in the control room realized the fuel rods were uncovered.
Faust and Frederick were racing around the control room trying to figure out from an array of hundreds of lights—red, green, white, blue, yellow, all blinking like a Christmas tree—what the main problem was and what they should do to fix it.
A lot more went wrong in very quick order. Between human error and equipment malfunctions, Three Mile Island was rapidly building into the worst nuclear crisis the country had ever faced. But in the first hours, the power company that owned the plant, Metropolitan Edison (known locally as Met Ed), failed to alert any state or federal official that anything was wrong, hoping that their technicians could fix whatever was going on inside the reactor.
It wasn’t long before the technicians realized that radiation was leaking out of the reactor. Events were spinning out of control. Unit No. 2 was in big trouble.
One of the people Hoop had talked to on that first day was John Callahan, a construction worker at the plant. Callahan had come to work shortly after 6 a.m. that morning and had been admitted into Unit No. 2 as usual. No one told him that anything was wrong.
Callahan had been on the job for about half an hour when he and another worker noticed a puddle of water on the floor. There should not have been any water on the floor, and they were trying to figure out how it came to be there when one of the senior technicians came running through the building waving his hands and shouting, "Get out! Get your stuff and get out!"
The water Callahan had seen on the floor was radioactive.
By 7 a.m., it had become clear that not only was the alarming buildup of radiation escaping from the reactor but some of it might even be leaking outside the plant. They could not keep the accident a secret any longer.
Gary Miller was Met Ed’s station manager for Three Mile Island. When he arrived in the control room at Unit No. 2, at approximately 7:15 a.m., there were about sixty people shouting and running back and forth as technicians tried to keep pace with the torrent of bad news coming from the instruments on the control panel.
Miller spent about five minutes listening to reports and studying data that confirmed fears that radiation levels were steadily increasing and radiation was spilling outside. At 7:24 a.m. he formally declared a "state of general emergency," the first ever at a nuclear power plant in the United States.
Met Ed finally began to telephone state and federal authorities to advise them of the situation. Even then, Met Ed tried to minimize the danger to the local population. As the governor, federal officials, and reporters began to ask questions about the emergency, Met Ed kept changing its story. At first spokesmen said it was a broken water pump, then a stuck valve, then a clogged filter. In fact, it was all of those things and a lot more.
Even as they were assuring Governor Dick Thornburgh and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission in Washington, D.C., that there was "no danger to public safety" from radioactive emissions, Met Ed officials knew that radioactive material was seeping outside the plant. They just didn’t know how much.
Because of the radioactive water and gas within the containment building, no one was able to go back inside Unit No. 2 to make an assessment of the damage. All they had to go on was information transmitted from instruments that might have been damaged by the accident.

Meltdown. Copyright (c) 2001 Wilborn Hampton. Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA

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