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Denebola » Article » DENEBOLA sat down with Three-Mile Island survivor Sue Welchs
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DENEBOLA sat down with Three-Mile Island survivor Sue Welchs

By Melanie Erspamer
Published: April 2011
Denebola: How is it you were in the area of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor?
Sue Welch: I lived in central Pennsylvania near Three Mile Island. I was teaching preschool. It was my first year out of college and that was my first job.
I was teaching preschoolers, and we were within ten miles of the plant.
Denebola: What did you know about nuclear reactors and nuclear power before the incident?
Sue Welch: Not very much. I knew that there was a plant in the area. I knew that there were cooling towers because I could see them, but beyond that I really didn’t know very much.
Denebola: Were you ever worried?
Sue Welch: Living around there? No. I had no concerns because I really didn’t know much about it. I assumed it was safe and went about my business, before the incident happened.
Denebola: What attitude did other, older teachers you worked with have before the incident?
Sue Welch: It was not something we really talked about so I don’t know that they had any concerns one way or the other.
The plant was there and I hadn’t encountered anybody in the time that I was there … who had any concerns.
Denebola: What happened the day of the incident? What did you do?
Sue Welch: The kids didn’t really know anything about what was going on; you know when you’re with little kids, you tend to not share scary information.
The morning of the incident, it was the second day [of the accident] so it was March 30, I think the initial incident happened on the 29, we were at work.
The adults were concerned because we had been hearing about it on the news the night before and were following things on the radio.
It’s similar to how things have evolved in Japan; every couple hours you hear something different and not everything supports what you’ve heard before. Sometime that morning, maybe around ten or 11 o’clock, is when the governor asked for an evacuation or suggested people within ten miles, either pregnant woman or preschool children, to leave the area.
At that point we didn’t know what to do because we weren’t aware of any evacuation plans that we should follow.
It wasn’t like the people in the area as far as I knew were educated about what to do with their residence and how to plan, so we didn’t quite know what to do.
We got a directive from the main headquarters of the preschool that I was at, we were like a chain of preschools, that we should go this evacuation site that was a designated evacuation site for floods and other emergencies that we had had in the area over the years.
In retrospect we shouldn’t have left the building; we should have stayed inside, but we were thinking we had to get farther away from the plant, so we evacuated. It was like a big exposition center where they were setting up for a circus.
So the kids thought we were going on a field trip and they were entertained by watching people bring in animals and props for the show that was going to be happening there; however, [the adults] didn’t really know what to do.
Parents who had kids in the center got notification of where we were. There was certainly anxiety about what was going on but I don’t know that the kids were- as I recall they weren’t scared, they were more intrigued that there was a different routine to the day.
One of our staff members was pregnant. And so by about 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon I was the only one left in the center because I didn’t have any dependence of any kind and I stayed until the last kid was picked up.
Denebola: How old were you then?
Sue Welch: I was 21.
Denebola: Did anything prepare you for this?
Sue Welch: No. I think the closest thing that I would have had would have been … fire drills and things like that to prepare for an emergency kind of thing.
There had been floods in that area; pretty significant floods of different kinds, so we knew about packing up things and leaving because we had to leave our house. But as far as really being prepared, no.
Denebola: Were you told to evacuate the area?
Sue Welch: I think if you do any research about this you’ll see that the communication around this disaster was very jumbled and the public got different information from different sources.
I think that people at the plant and the government were trying to figure out what to do. You know, how bad was it there, and was there anything to be concerned about or not?
A search showed there was an incident: a hydrogen bubble developed inside the plant and they were concerned that it was going to explode. So they were inspecting things as the hours went by to figure out what to do and it was after Jimmy Carter came up from Washington DC with some of the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] people, and they looked at things at the plant and discussed it with the governor and that’s when the decision was made to evacuate the reactor.
It wasn’t a mandatory evacuation. It was just suggested that you should leave if you were concerned within 10 or 20 miles from the plant (I don’t remember exactly). So that was the first day and then Friday and Monday schools in the whole area were closed and a lot of people left the area.
But I think with any kind of emergency like this you always hear different things and until they really sort out what’s going on you won’t really have clear information, and it wasn’t for years after the plant disaster that they actually were able to go inside the reactor and see that things had taken damage as significantly as they had.
Denebola: When was it “over”, did you go back to your job?
Sue Welch: I left work, it would have been a Thursday, and I was back at work I think the following Tuesday. Not all the kids’ families were back in the area yet but that’s when we reopened the center and I went back to my normal life.
I think one of the things that struck me as I was leaving the area to go back to where I went to college was that if things did go very badly I would not be able to go back to that area in my lifetime.
It wasn’t a matter of if it was a fire and I could rebuild, or if it was a flood and I could clean up and go back, but if it were a bad incident like Chernobyl, [I knew I couldn’t go back].
So I was driving away in my car and anything that was part of my life I [thought I] might not ever see again. You know, it’s not only possessions but where I went to school and everything, so that was pretty traumatic.
When I came back for good it was interesting to see what kind of things the kids did with the information that they may have heard at home because families could have had their televisions on, so there were all kinds of stories and some adventures.
A few kids drew pictures of cooling towers or nuclear plants because that’s what they were hearing about and what they had seen. The bubble had gone away, so that was no longer a concern, and the plant was shut down, so at that point it was a matter of assessing what exactly had happened: how much radiation had been released and what they were going to need to do to clean up, but there were no more concerns that things were dangerous for people living in the area.
Denebola: Years have passed; you’ve had a chance to think about Three Mile Island. How do your feelings toward nuclear power now compare to your feelings before the incident?
Sue Welch: I guess I’d say I’m not really in favor of [it] because [it raises] too many questions about what to do with the waste and how to securely throw it out, and certainly the impacts that an accident would have on an area are so dramatic that it’s not something I’m really comfortable with. I wouldn’t want to live right near one, I mean we’re fairly near but not as I had before. I’m not in favor of [how much fossil fuel we use], but I’m not sure that nuclear is something I would prefer.
Denebola: How has your life changed now that you realize the gravity of the incident?
Sue Welch: One of the things that I have always made sure I do is that whatever school I’m working at I want to be on what’s called the Crisis Team, and each school has a Crisis Team to deal with any kind of incident that may happen and so I just want to know what plans there are for emergencies.
So that’s really important for me. Just really being aware of what kind of emergency information I could get hold of is something that reassures my mind.
Denebola: Hearing about the Japanese situation today must make you remember that melt down. What do you think about the nuclear power plants here in Massachusetts?
Sue Welch: The Japan incident has reminded me about how annoying traversing that kind of thing can be, especially if you’re living in the area and are very concerned.
I actually have a cousin who is in the service and has been serving and now he and his wife are coming back home to the states. I … just hope that people that live near [the Pilgrim Plant] know about an evacuation plan and that there are emergency procedures in place. I guess I feel that I’m thinking about my own sense of security.
Do I think it should be shut down tomorrow? No, but I certainly think the United States government should be concerned about their plants especially now that they’re aging, and that they should be making sure that the people who live near them are safe.
I have a colleague at my school who lives in Provincetown and she pointed out to me that where she lives is actually closer to Pilgrim than some of the people, you know, who are on the South Shore and that the people on the South Shore have iodine and other things to prepare them for an emergency but on the other coast they don’t and they’d be very stuck trying to evacuate from there.

Denebola: How is it you were in the area of the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor? Sue Welch: I lived in central Pennsylvania near Three Mile Island. I was teaching preschool. It was my first year out of college and that was my first job.I was teaching preschoolers, and we were within ten miles of the plant.Denebola: What did you know about nuclear reactors and nuclear power before the incident?Sue Welch: Not very much. I knew that there was a plant in the area. I knew that there were cooling towers because I could see them, but beyond that I really didn’t know very much.Denebola: Were you ever worried?Sue Welch: Living around there? No. I had no concerns because I really didn’t know much about it. I assumed it was safe and went about my business, before the incident happened.Denebola: What attitude did other, older teachers you worked with have before the incident?Sue Welch: It was not something we really talked about so I don’t know that they had any concerns one way or the other. The plant was there and I hadn’t encountered anybody in the time that I was there … who had any concerns.Denebola: What happened the day of the incident? What did you do?Sue Welch: The kids didn’t really know anything about what was going on; you know when you’re with little kids, you tend to not share scary information.The morning of the incident, it was the second day [of the accident] so it was March 30, I think the initial incident happened on the 29, we were at work. The adults were concerned because we had been hearing about it on the news the night before and were following things on the radio.It’s similar to how things have evolved in Japan; every couple hours you hear something different and not everything supports what you’ve heard before. Sometime that morning, maybe around ten or 11 o’clock, is when the governor asked for an evacuation or suggested people within ten miles, either pregnant woman or preschool children, to leave the area.At that point we didn’t know what to do because we weren’t aware of any evacuation plans that we should follow.It wasn’t like the people in the area as far as I knew were educated about what to do with their residence and how to plan, so we didn’t quite know what to do.We got a directive from the main headquarters of the preschool that I was at, we were like a chain of preschools, that we should go this evacuation site that was a designated evacuation site for floods and other emergencies that we had had in the area over the years.In retrospect we shouldn’t have left the building; we should have stayed inside, but we were thinking we had to get farther away from the plant, so we evacuated. It was like a big exposition center where they were setting up for a circus.So the kids thought we were going on a field trip and they were entertained by watching people bring in animals and props for the show that was going to be happening there; however, [the adults] didn’t really know what to do.Parents who had kids in the center got notification of where we were. There was certainly anxiety about what was going on but I don’t know that the kids were- as I recall they weren’t scared, they were more intrigued that there was a different routine to the day.One of our staff members was pregnant. And so by about 1:30 or 2:00 in the afternoon I was the only one left in the center because I didn’t have any dependence of any kind and I stayed until the last kid was picked up.Denebola: How old were you then?Sue Welch: I was 21.Denebola: Did anything prepare you for this?Sue Welch: No. I think the closest thing that I would have had would have been … fire drills and things like that to prepare for an emergency kind of thing.There had been floods in that area; pretty significant floods of different kinds, so we knew about packing up things and leaving because we had to leave our house. But as far as really being prepared, no.Denebola: Were you told to evacuate the area?Sue Welch: I think if you do any research about this you’ll see that the communication around this disaster was very jumbled and the public got different information from different sources.I think that people at the plant and the government were trying to figure out what to do. You know, how bad was it there, and was there anything to be concerned about or not?A search showed there was an incident: a hydrogen bubble developed inside the plant and they were concerned that it was going to explode. So they were inspecting things as the hours went by to figure out what to do and it was after Jimmy Carter came up from Washington DC with some of the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] people, and they looked at things at the plant and discussed it with the governor and that’s when the decision was made to evacuate the reactor.It wasn’t a mandatory evacuation. It was just suggested that you should leave if you were concerned within 10 or 20 miles from the plant (I don’t remember exactly). So that was the first day and then Friday and Monday schools in the whole area were closed and a lot of people left the area.But I think with any kind of emergency like this you always hear different things and until they really sort out what’s going on you won’t really have clear information, and it wasn’t for years after the plant disaster that they actually were able to go inside the reactor and see that things had taken damage as significantly as they had.Denebola: When was it “over”, did you go back to your job?Sue Welch: I left work, it would have been a Thursday, and I was back at work I think the following Tuesday. Not all the kids’ families were back in the area yet but that’s when we reopened the center and I went back to my normal life.I think one of the things that struck me as I was leaving the area to go back to where I went to college was that if things did go very badly I would not be able to go back to that area in my lifetime.It wasn’t a matter of if it was a fire and I could rebuild, or if it was a flood and I could clean up and go back, but if it were a bad incident like Chernobyl, [I knew I couldn’t go back].So I was driving away in my car and anything that was part of my life I [thought I] might not ever see again. You know, it’s not only possessions but where I went to school and everything, so that was pretty traumatic.When I came back for good it was interesting to see what kind of things the kids did with the information that they may have heard at home because families could have had their televisions on, so there were all kinds of stories and some adventures.A few kids drew pictures of cooling towers or nuclear plants because that’s what they were hearing about and what they had seen. The bubble had gone away, so that was no longer a concern, and the plant was shut down, so at that point it was a matter of assessing what exactly had happened: how much radiation had been released and what they were going to need to do to clean up, but there were no more concerns that things were dangerous for people living in the area.Denebola: Years have passed; you’ve had a chance to think about Three Mile Island. How do your feelings toward nuclear power now compare to your feelings before the incident?Sue Welch: I guess I’d say I’m not really in favor of [it] because [it raises] too many questions about what to do with the waste and how to securely throw it out, and certainly the impacts that an accident would have on an area are so dramatic that it’s not something I’m really comfortable with. I wouldn’t want to live right near one, I mean we’re fairly near but not as I had before. I’m not in favor of [how much fossil fuel we use], but I’m not sure that nuclear is something I would prefer.Denebola: How has your life changed now that you realize the gravity of the incident?Sue Welch: One of the things that I have always made sure I do is that whatever school I’m working at I want to be on what’s called the Crisis Team, and each school has a Crisis Team to deal with any kind of incident that may happen and so I just want to know what plans there are for emergencies.So that’s really important for me. Just really being aware of what kind of emergency information I could get hold of is something that reassures my mind.Denebola: Hearing about the Japanese situation today must make you remember that melt down. What do you think about the nuclear power plants here in Massachusetts?Sue Welch: The Japan incident has reminded me about how annoying traversing that kind of thing can be, especially if you’re living in the area and are very concerned.I actually have a cousin who is in the service and has been serving and now he and his wife are coming back home to the states. I … just hope that people that live near [the Pilgrim Plant] know about an evacuation plan and that there are emergency procedures in place. I guess I feel that I’m thinking about my own sense of security.Do I think it should be shut down tomorrow? No, but I certainly think the United States government should be concerned about their plants especially now that they’re aging, and that they should be making sure that the people who live near them are safe.I have a colleague at my school who lives in Provincetown and she pointed out to me that where she lives is actually closer to Pilgrim than some of the people, you know, who are on the South Shore and that the people on the South Shore have iodine and other things to prepare them for an emergency but on the other coast they don’t and they’d be very stuck trying to evacuate from there.

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