The Dick Thornburgh Papers

Three Mile Island

In the early hours of Wednesday, March 28, 1979, Governor Thornburgh received a telephone call from the state director of emergency management, Colonel Oran Henderson. It was news of a problem that, in Thornburgh's words, "no governor, anywhere, had ever had to face" (Evidence, p.112). The Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant, located in the middle of the Susquehanna River near the state's capitol, Harrisburg, had suffered an accident. Answers to the question of what precisely had happened and especially the question of what effects the accident would have for public safety were unclear. The immediate task to simply get the facts proved much easier said than done.

Governor Thornburgh, inaugurated only seventy-one days before the accident, had previously had only a "cursory briefing" from the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency (PEMA) and a passing reference to Three Mile Island (TMI) and the other nuclear power facilities in Pennsylvania. Immediately Thornburgh assembled a group of staff and other trusted associates whom he referred to as an "ad-hocracy" (Evidence, p.113). Included were Jay Waldman, Paul Critchlow, Rick Stafford and Bob Wilburn.

The primary assignment to the ad-hocracy was to determine exactly what was happening, especially in view of the contradictory statements being issued by officials from Metropolitan Edison (the utility company), federal regulators (NRC) and other groups. Further complicating the matter, Thornburgh recalls the "self-appointed experts and dubious eyewitnesses [that] continued to feed us unsubstantiated stories about dead animals, along with exaggerated warnings and evacuation schemes" (Evidence, 114). News of a China Syndrome potential, of a possible need for evacuation of thousands of persons within five or even ten miles of TMI, and of the delay in ascertaining the facts was a challenge beyond description to the Governor and his administration.

The files included here were collected both during and after the accident to monitor, document and assess the facts of the accident and its implications on public health, energy concerns, cleanup needs and costs, and effects on the Pennsylvania economy.

Ultimately, with the invaluable assistance of Harold Denton and his team from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the facts ascertained that “while some of the reactor fuel heated to the point of melting, a disastrous ‘meltdown’ was never close to occurring.  And a massive evacuation of the up to 200,000 people residing in the area, with its potential for panic, injury and even loss of life, would have been far more dangerous and damaging than was the accident itself. Subsequent evaluations of the handling of the accident highly praised Governor Thornburgh for the calm, deliberate method he had brought to Three Mile Island.

There is substantial material related to TMI contained elsewhere in the Thornburgh collection. For example in the Press Secretary files, Office of Policy Development (OPD), General Counsel files, and files of the Governor and his staff. Additional videos and audios are available online. Of particular interest will be the videos of the press conferences from the early days of the accident.

C-Span interview with Collection Curator, 2016

Collection curator, Nancy Watson, shows some of the collection papers of former Pennsylvania Governor and U.S. Attorney General Dick Thornburgh (R).

The papers give insight into his time as governor during the incident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, including minute by minute notes of the incident.

Nancy Watson on C-Span talking about Governor Thornburgh and Three Mile Island