The Lighter Side of Three Mile Island (aka The Fake News Follies)

Well, it’s that time again — March 28th, the anniversary of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. The worst commercial nuclear accident in United States history. When it happened, it was the worst commercial nuclear accident in everyone’s history. The fact that it has since been surpassed in “worseness” — a couple of different times — should tell you something right there.

Normally when I post in this blog about Three Mile Island (like here and here), I remind you that commercial nuclear power is neither “safe” energy, nor “cheap” energy, nor “clean” energy, nor “green” energy. It may be “alternative” energy, at least in the sense that it is not generated using fossil fuels. But I’ll tell you what — I’ll take energy that produces carbon dioxide as waste over energy that produces plutonium and assorted similar materials as waste any day of the week. Go look it up, and you’ll see what I’m talking about.

But — all that serious stuff is neither here nor there today. Today we’re not going to get all serious about things. Instead, today we’re going to look at the lighter side of the U.S.’s worst commercial nuclear accident.

Let me tell you a story….

As you probably know, I lived in Middletown, Pennsylvania, about two or three miles from Three Mile Island, at the time of the accident. I was a political reporter for Harrisburg magazine, so I got to see a lot of things that members of the public didn’t see. I also stayed in town during the worst part of the accident, when virtually everyone else in Middletown fled for the hills. I was a reporter. I had to stay to get the scoop.

During the first couple of weeks after the accident, when no one including the “experts” really knew what was going on, and when there was the very real threat of an explosion that could release deadly radiation throughout the countryside, Middletown became a ghost town.

Virtually everyone left. The Governor of Pennsylvania, not wanting to cause a panic, did not actually order an evacuation, but he didn’t have to. The town just emptied out on its own. Every business shut down except for two bars — and after a few days, one of them shut down as well.

The only people left in town were some of the local civic officials like the mayor; officials from the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who had come to take charge of the situation; and a few hundred reporters who had descended on Middletown and Harrisburg from around the world to cover the biggest news story of the time.

For us reporters, the day generally began at the NRC briefing, where the NRC guys would bring us up to date on what was happening, answer questions, and explain to us the intricacies of how a nuclear power plant actually worked. This generally went on for a few hours every morning. Afterwards, we would work on our stories — print reporters typing away, TV reporters and their camera crews setting up to tape.

Eventually, almost all of us would end up at the single open bar in Middletown for lunch and drinks.

One day I was at this bar sitting next to a reporter from the Los Angeles Times who, like all the other reporters, had come to town to cover Three Mile Island. We’ll call her Jane, although that’s not her real name. We were sitting there drinking a few beers and just casually shooting the breeze — just a way to unwind during what was an indescribably stressful and pressure-packed period for all of us.

As we sat there, a TV news crew entered the bar. I seem to remember they were from somewhere in New York state, although I could be wrong about that. Jane and I were sitting very near the door, so they approached us first. They introduced themselves and said they wanted to speak to someone who worked at Three Mile Island, or someone who had a relative who worked there. Did we know anyone?

I’m not sure what form of “inspiration” occurred at that moment, but Jane responded that yes, she lived in Middletown and her husband worked at Three Mile Island.

Huh? Really? I bit my tongue. The reporter said great, do you mind if we interview you? Jane said no, she didn’t mind at all.

And so it began. The lights came on. The tape rolled. And Jane gave an Oscar-worthy performance. She was deathly worried about her husband, she said. The plant managers had told her that he had not been exposed to radiation, but she didn’t know whether or not to believe them. She was angry at the utility for putting her husband and her family in this position. She was angry at the government for allowing this all to happen. She didn’t know what her family was going to do.

All the while she was doing this, I was giving my own Oscar-worthy performance by keeping a straight face and not saying a word. I’m really not sure how I did it.

After five or ten minutes, the interview was done. The lights went off, the tape stopped, and the reporter thanked Jane for her help. The news crew left the bar and went off to file their report. They had swallowed it hook, line, and sinker.

Jane and I turned to each other and cracked up.

I have always wished I could have seen the report on the TV news that night. I really don’t know what possessed Jane to do that. She probably doesn’t know herself. I’m guessing it just seemed like a fun prank to pull at the time — and she pulled it off admirably. And while I can’t say I’m particularly fond of the idea of putting out fake news — especially a reporter putting out fake news! — I do have to admit that, in the moment, it was really, really funny.

It’s also a good lesson. The next time you see the “person in the street” being interviewed on the news, think about Jane and Three Mile Island and how easy it was to prank the media in search of a story…