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In the shadow of disaster: York County and its newspaper tested 30 years ago

This iconic Associated Press photo shows then-President Jimmy Carter, center, with Harold Denton, left, of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh, left rear, in Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 control room on April 1, 1979. Two weeks earlier, the York Daily Record’s reporting suggested an accident could happen. (See additional photo, video below.) Background posts: Three Mile Island emergency indelibly written into memories and Availability of microfilm an oft-posed question and Publishing legend Gitt vocal about nuclear power.

The partial meltdown of Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor put York countians to the test 30 years ago.
Just check out the oral histories that are part of the York Daily Record/Sunday News’ “Remember” series if you need a refresher.
Or read the stories about the accident’s impact, with a graphic of what went wrong that March day in 1979.
The York Daily Record was tested, too.
About two weeks earlier, a major reporting project suggested that a major nuclear accident could occur… .

A TMI official talks with the media from the inside of decommissioned unit 2 cooling tower in 2004.
That brought a firestorm of criticism falling on the newspaper.
I assembled how all this unfolded as part of a newspaper story “In the shadow of disaster,” published as part the York Daily Record’s 200th anniversary in 1996. (For whatever it’s worth, this was my first major history project.)
Here goes:

“Three Mile Island atomic power plant has serious safety defects that should be repaired, says the staff of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).”
– News story, York Daily Record, March 13, 1979.
“We didn’t run the series to unduly scare people… Nuclear accidents are really a long shot … (T)hey certainly are not impossible.”
– Column, York Daily Record, March 17, 1979.
“In the light of what could happen in a serious nuclear accident… NRC is displaying a rather cavalier attitude for an agency that literally has our lives in its hands.”
– Editorial, York Daily Record, March 19, 1979
“Yet, by the recent attempt in a series of articles to ring an alarm ‘of nuke disaster,’ the York Daily Record has abandoned both that principle and the paper’s journalistic obligation under the First Amendment…. We submit that this campaign in the Record is tantamount to yelling ‘fire’ in a crowded theater when there is no fire. We are certain that the citizens of York County will seek out the facts and not accept fantasy.”
– Walter Creitz, Met Ed president, March 26, 1979.
“Perhaps the worst accident in the history of nuclear power closed the Unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island Wednesday, leaving a threat of more release of radioactive gases over York County.”
– News story, York Daily Record, March 29, 1979.
“The week of March 12 you printed a lot of scare stories about nuclear power. Your reporter used uncritically the material fed to him by a few anti-nuclear activists complete with their meaningless terms such as, ‘it is believed, could, may, might, and seem to be,’ and the melodramatic distortion of facts to sell the story.”
– Letter from Ronald L. Harper of Philadelphia Electric Co., March 29, 1979.
“A Nobel laureate said Friday ‘Any radiation dose is an overdose’ and indicated that the dangers of radiation leaks from Three Mile Island’s broken nuclear reactor are greater than officials believe.”
– News story, York Daily Record, March 30, 1979.
“What we warned our readers about just two weeks ago is in the process of happening: The reactor at Three Mile Island has suffered serious core damage… .”
– Column, York Daily Record, March 31, 1979.
” Creitz further likens the articles to a man shouting ‘fire’ and causing panic when there is no fire. Certainly causing panic without reason, if that were the case, would be irresponsible. But an even greater irresponsibility would be manifested by a person who, upon discovering a fire, kept it a secret, or even worse, assured everyone that there was no fire.”
– Letter to the editor, March 31, 1979.
“The utilities, the public and government officials must insist that all safeguards are used, every hazard is checked, every violation of safety is penalized, and that nothing but the best in design, in workmanship, in materials, in employees, is used in construction, maintenance and operation of nuclear power plants.”
– Editorial, York Daily Record, April 3, 1979.
“The way you are distorting the issues about this needed source of energy, reminds me of the old Gazette and Daily, run by the Gitts. I feel that the ‘Gitts’ were the most biased, pinko propagandists that there ever was.”
– Letter to the editor, York Daily Record, April 4, 1979.

This video is part of a special news package published in conjunction with the 30th anniversary of TMI. For more, click here.