Now that the interviews are complete and transcribed, I’ve been translating them into visual narratives for public consumption via social networking. The art has a graphic feel, with some interactive aspect to it– it’s meant to be scrolled and read. All the art & stories are posted to the official project site: www.tmi35project.com
I’ve been updating it regularly with stories, but it has a lot more to offer. It’s got listings of additional resources for those interested in learning more about Three Mile Island, the NRC, the nuclear industry, etc, as well as galleries of photos and sketches I made while conducting research. Please feel free to visit the site!
Here are some preview pictures from the stories up so far:
Having recently finished the final interviews for the project– which featured conversations with a farmer and former TMI activist, a former mayor of Lancaster who served on the NRC Advisory Panel, and a former plant worker at TMI, I’m now working on visual development. The process of creating visuals to illustrate these narratives has also included field trips led by representatives from TMIA out and about in the neighboring areas of TMI. We’ve explored nearby towns like Goldsboro and walked up the river to get photo reference for the visuals. It’s been incredibly interesting to explore the area. I mean, it’s one thing to understand that a nuclear plant is operating nearby, but another thing to be able to see it from your backyard. What was also notable was that this particular cross-section of town and river is a microcosm for the majority of PA: a nuclear plant on the left, a coal plant on the right and working-class suburbia in the middle.
These field trips and follow-up meetings with interviewees have also imbued me with a new appreciation for the history of Pennsylvania. I guess I’d always viewed my state’s history in an itinerant way, largely missing the connections between an event and my current reality, especially a technological one like TMI. So, it’s been fascinating to gain an environmental history of PA, and also a narrative one from native Pennsylvanians. For example, I got the chance to interview a local farmer named Pattie Longenecker. She was kind enough to give me a tour of her farm and home, and spoke candidly about her experiences with TMI. From her dialect to her Mennonite quilts to her traditional home, she is the embodiment of Central PA. I’d never had the opportunity to meet someone who was so in touch with the land, or someone who could list her ancestors back ten generations.
Here is an excerpt from the interview:
I grew up in Bainbridge, PA. And that’s about three miles south of Three Mile Island. [Our roots] are very deep in this area. Mine go back ten generations in a little five-mile radius. And we built this property out in the countryside where we raised two children. We were self-sufficient for many years, raising chickens, ducks, geese, sheep herd, all the crops we needed.
We just have such an appreciation that developed over those early years. I think, as we get older, it’s an even deeper feeling that you appreciate the seasons and how nature has its role in each season – just how everything has to fit together. And when it doesn’t, you see what can go wrong. And when Three Mile Island happened, we felt strongly about that as an issue because of the fact that we were so in tune with our surroundings. It just seemed like such a negative in what we thought of as a very positive way of living.
I feel this is an event in the life of this area that has affected many of us. And it will go on affecting us for generations. We have an island in the middle of the Susquehanna River in a flood plane on which my grandmother’s cousins grew the best melons in this whole area until they sold to the utility after a big flood. I think it was 1936 or ’38 or something. There, we already have a risk when you put something of this magnitude – when this was built, we had no clue what was being built in our river.
Later on in the conversation, we discussed how the legacy of TMI has impacted Lancaster and the farming community:
When you traveled even to Europe, someone would wonder where you’re from. And where I used to always be so proud to say Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – some of the best farmland in the world – they would know you’re from Three Mile Island. And I felt: what a commentary to go from being known in such a positive vein worldwide – Lancaster County soil is some of the best in the whole world… and this [TMI] is what we were known for. It’s going back here to change these new chapters with a whole different commentary on the lives we would know from then on.
Talking with Mrs. Longenecker helped me understand a new perspective– that many of the people involved with TMI were not troublemakers or agenda-ready politicos, but simple people who were looking out for their land and way of life. I’m looking forward to finishing up the visuals for these stories to be able to share them in their entirety.
These past few weeks I’ve had the opportunity to research and interview a number of locals about their personal experiences with Three Mile Island, the accident in 1979 and how that inspired them to speak up about nuclear power in the Middletown/Harrisburg community. What makes these individuals so interesting is their, for lack of a better word, utter ordinary-ness. Their lives were emblematic of classic americana culture: small town, blue collar townspeople who kept their heads down and worked hard to provide for their families. Middletown was, and is, still a quiet, heavily conservative town in which ‘normalcy’ is aspired to and activism is not. So, one can only imagine the magnitude of confusion, panic and utter disillusionment that must have ensued from the day of the accident that managed to galvanize a loose collection of concerned neighbors into a movement of organized activists.
It was so interesting to learn about these people: mothers, daycare workers, farmers, whose lives were turned upside down by the accident, and how they tried to make sense of it all. Many had had little to no education on nuclear energy, but with determination and hard work, they began to do their own research and became bonafide experts in their own right. Despite inner turmoil in the affected areas, these concerned townspeople gathered the confidence needed to question the actions of Metropolitan Edison, the NRC and the government– even taking the NRC to the Supreme Court in the mid ’80’s. Again, these were working-class folk– not lawyers or well-connected white collars– but they stood their ground against a collection of agencies. And sometimes even their own neighbors. Questioning the incident earned many of these folks the title of ‘radical;’ a term that engendered a bit of tension and fear in the affected areas surrounding TMI. To understand the evolution of thought brought upon by a single accident that could lead an individual to go from your average ‘Joe the Plumber’ to a radical (on both a micro and macro scale) has been an extremely engaging experience.
Below are a few photos from my travels through Middletown and Central PA. As you can see, it’s a rural setting. Included (from left to right) are: Doris Robb, an activist now based in Lancaster– she helped conduct health surveys & radiation monitoring around TMI, Mary Stamos– a woman who became an activist after evacuating and noticing her children’s hair fall out; she’s spent years conducting research and collecting mutated specimens of local fauna (where radiation is the prime suspect), the stacks of boxes pictured below contain her collections which might be evaluated for inclusion in the Smithsonian, and finally Jim Hurst, a member of the activist group PANE (people against nuclear energy) that took the NRC to the Supreme Court; he and his wife are proud of their garden, though, much to their chagrin, you can see the plant’s cooling towers through the bushes.
For my project, I’m conducting follow-up research on Three Mile Island over the summer to commemorate the 35th anniversary of the nuclear accident. My goal is to approach the incident from a humanistic perspective, interviewing individuals who were involved to understand the social & psychological effects of the accident and its ensuing politicization. Using the interviews and additional research, I plan on creating an artistic re-telling of these stories to be dispensed by Three Mile Island Alert, a local non-profit organization that works with TMI & the NRC to promote safety efforts, in an effort to reach out to younger generations, such as mine, so they may know the people of TMI as well as the story.
For the past several weeks I’ve been reading up on the subject, getting info from Dickinson Library and prepping interview questions.
This past week has been my first on the job– here are a couple of the interviews I’ve conducted so far:
RB Swift: A statehouse reporter who covered the incident as it happened.
I also interviewed Ralph DeSantis (who was kind enough to give me a tour of the facilities at TMI)– he’s a Communications Manager for Exelon, who are contracted to monitor TMI Unit 2.