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When the reactor at the Three  Mile Island nuclear generating station partially melted down in 1979, Chuck Kern lived and worked nearby, and he kept an audio diary of the historic event.

LISTEN: to Kara Holsopple’s conversation with Chuck Kern

When he started his recording on a hand-held device, Kern was the controller and personnel manager for a local bedding manufacturer near Harrisburg. He heard about the accident at work.

This photo, provided by Chuck Kern, was taken in 1979.

“I was shocked. I was scared,” he said into his recorder.

Kern listened to news updates on the radio, and tried to make calls to the company’s retail stores, but the phones were tied up, and he couldn’t even get a dial tone.

Today, Kern is a forensic accountant. On this 40th anniversary of the accident, Kern talked with The Allegheny Front’s Kara Holsopple about his experience, and why he decided to keep an audio diary of the event.

“I just had enough of an interest in history that I’m going to record this, and maybe our world will come to an end if they have a complete meltdown, at least in this area, or perhaps not,” he said. “Maybe someday, somebody would find it interesting.”

Kara Holsopple: What were your initial thoughts about it?

Chuck Kern:  “Well, I was 33 at the time…not too many years out of graduate school and that sort of thing. The belief was at the time, and I was young, that anything new was good, and anything old was just people being old fuddy duds. And I’m not saying I’m not a proponent of nuclear power now. I’m just saying that at the time, all the publicity [of nuclear power] was quite favorable.

Part of the problem was the coverage at the time. You had the utility company saying one thing, you had Denton from the Atomic Energy Commission [sic] saying exactly the opposite, and then you had the governor, Thornburgh, coming up and admitting that he actually didn’t know who was right and who wasn’t. When you have people talking, people who are supposed to know, and they’re giving you conflicting information, and it’s something that’s potentially life threatening, that causes a lot of anxiety.”

Watch a video of Governor Thronburgh talking two days after the accident:

KH: The public was told, by the media that there had been a high level of radiation released sometime after the incident, then officials with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said, no, everything’s OK, but people should stay indoors. Here’s what you said about it then:

They just responded with terms and so forth, so technical, and just beyond the comprehension of anybody. They got into discussions millirems and megarems per hour…

CK: “You are trying to believe people who are on the radio, who are authorities. But you don’t really know, and they’re not saying the same thing. They’re conflicting. And if there is radiation, I think I knew or thought I knew, it does penetrate buildings, it does penetrate walls.”

KH: In the diary, you talk about radiation. Let’s hear a little of that now:

You can’t see it. You can’t feel it, can’t smell it, can’t taste it. It’s terrible. You just say, ‘I wish to hell the stuff was purple.’

CK: You know, if you’re being attacked by somebody, or if there’s wildfires going, or there are tornadoes coming, or flooding or whatever it is, or if you’re in a war situation, you can see and sense and feel the enemy which is perhaps trying to kill you.

You can’t see the radiation. You don’t know whether it’s right there in front of you, or surrounding you. So that’s what makes it a more difficult situation.”  

KH: So what did you do? Did you stay indoors?

CK: “I’m the youngest of a large family. I know quite a few of us were gathered at my sister’s home on, I think it was Saturday right after the accident, and we weren’t talking about the accident. We were just trying to have a good time and some laughs. Then my sister’s next door neighbor came in and asked us if we were listening to NBC News, and we said no. And he said, well, turn it on, they’re ordering an evacuation.

And what they were ordering was, I don’t even know if they called it an evacuation. They recommended that pregnant ladies and people with preschool age children should leave the area. So that convinced me to leave.

Now prior to that, at my workplace, we had 125 employees, and they were all very nervous and concerned. So we held a meeting, and told them that nobody knows for sure what’s happening or how it’s going to end. If you decide you want to leave, and everything works out well here, and you want to come back, your jobs will be here. If it doesn’t work out, well, God bless you.”

KH: In the end, the government says the amount of radiation released during the Three Mile Island accident never exceeded unacceptable levels. People ended up evacuating for a few days, until they felt sure they were out of danger. From the audio diary:

I think the most amazing thing that is beyond the comprehension, if anybody has ever experienced it, is they just can’t imagine the horror, the strain of having to put into one or two cases those very basic essential things to live. It’s only that which you absolutely need to continue your existence, and being prepared to leave behind and lose perhaps everything else you have, to be disrupted from your family, perhaps to lose family or lose friends, to lose your job, start your career over. [It’s] just phenomenal.

After incident was over, Kern and others returned home, and life went on.

Everybody is confident. People are smiling. People are happy. People are back to work. It’s almost back to normal.

KH: I’m curious if, after the incident, if you felt differently than you had felt before about nuclear power? If you felt like it was less reliable?

CK: “I was just scared about my life, and losing my family, losing my occupation, having to start life over. You know, if you just had that experience, then you’re not going to be so inclined just say, ‘Oh yeah, I still think nuclear power is great. Let’s do it.’”

KH: What about in the years afterwards?

CK: “Well, I haven’t moved, so I guess I decided things were getting better, and care and technology and monitoring the technology was getting better. Otherwise, I would’ve left permanently.”

KH: Do you think that we have learned something from that accident?

CK: “Nothing is foolproof.  It reminds me when you ask that question [of] something we see in the news: a lot of driverless automobiles. Have you ever heard of a computer glitch? Those cars are going to have accidents. Things will go wrong. Most humans are pretty well intended, but things will happen. That’s the nature of life.”

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This March marks the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. PA Post is collaborating with WITF and PennLive on a multimedia, month-long look at the accident, its impact and the future of TMI and the nuclear industry. That includes new documentary television and radio programs, long-form audio stories, photos, and digital videos. The work will include the voices of people affected as well as community events to engage with listeners, readers and viewers