As we near the 40th anniversary of the nuclear reactor accident at Three Mile Island, questions pop up like spring wildflowers.
— Were people harmed by the partial meltdown and limited releases of nuclear radiation during the accident in TMI’s Unit 2 in late March 1979? Old studies say no. A newer study by Penn State College of Medicine says maybe.
— Should current TMI owner Exelon be permitted to run Unit 1 for another 15 years, even though its operations would have to be heavily subsidized?
— Can tons of nuclear waste be stored safely on the Susquehanna River island for hundreds of years?
And so on.
These are vital, complex questions. But the Scribbler wants to consider a question of an entirely different type, one that should have a simple answer.
How did Three Mile Island get its name?
Wikipedia says the island is three miles from Middletown and that is how it got its name.
Exelon says “TMI is so named because it is located three miles from Harrisburg International Airport.” The airport is in Londonderry Township, along the Susquehanna just upriver from Middletown.
So the current answer to the question seems to be that TMI is three miles downriver from Middletown or the airport or somewhere around there. But that answer is wrong, according to someone who actually knows how the island was named.
Following the accident 40 years ago, the Scribbler consulted Louis M. Waddell, then staff historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at Harrisburg.
Waddell said the source of the name was a geological survey made by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1963 from an aerial survey made two years earlier. Someone apparently believed the island was about 3 miles long and people began calling it “Three Mile Island.”
The southernmost tip of Three Mile Island extends into Conoy Township, Lancaster County.
That designation is inaccurate, Waddell explained, because the island’s maximum length is 2.2 miles. You could add another .3 miles for two little islands just north of the main island.
Not only is the name inaccurate, but it is arbitrary. The island was called Musser’s in the middle of the 19th century. Later it became Conewago Island, Elliot’s Island and Duffy’s Island, mostly depending on who owned it. So, following that logic, it might have been called Met Ed’s Island for Metropolitan Edison, TMI’s owner at the time of the accident.
That’s probably more than you wanted to know about the naming of TMI. Now you can go back to worrying about the more important questions.
Some time ago the Scribbler wrote a not-so-complimentary column about the Pennsylvania State Song. “Pennsylvania” begins “Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania, mighty is your name. ...” State government made it the official state song in 1990.
Grace L. Shirk, of Lancaster, says she and fellow students growing up in Jeannette, Westmoreland County, sang another Pennsylvania song in the 1940s. She suspects some folks in Lancaster sang it, too. It’s in the key of C.
Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania strong and true.
Pennsylvania, here’s our song to you.
There is beauty in your mountains,
There is peace among your hills.
So where e’er we roam
Our only home is Pennsylvania.
(That is, thanks to a partial meltdown at TMI 40 years ago, our home is Pennsylvania.)
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP staff, writes "The Scribbler'' column every Wednesday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.