While attending one of my company board meetings a few years back in Pasco, Wash., I introduced myself to a No-Nukes Northwest representative from Portland, Ore. She said she was at Three Mile Island, near Harrisburg, Penn., 41 years ago following the partial nuclear reactor meltdown that released radiation into the atmosphere. With pained expression she told me, “I saw the skin falling off the cows!”
So I searched the internet for skinless Three Mile Island cows – no joy. I did, however, find dozens of photos of then-President Jimmy Carter and First Lady Rosalynn touring the stricken plant just four days after the accident.
Carter was a nuclear engineer, served in the nuclear Navy, and understood radiation. Local Harrisburg authorities, on the other hand, had no understanding of the potential consequences of a radiation release, and had made no plans for a nuclear emergency response. Public notifications were erratic and contradictory.
Carter realized that only his on-scene presence could cut through the communication chaos and arrest the unnecessary fear gripping the Harrisburg area. As residents from the Three Mile Island area were voluntarily driving out of town, the presidential motorcade was driving in.
Today President Carter is America’s oldest living and longest-lived president. While it seems that his skin is okay, the skin certainly did not fall off the local cows (nor did they produce irradiated milk). Looking back we know that the self-evacuation of nearly 150,000 people – most prior to Carter’s arrival – was driven by fear induced by lack of government readiness to properly assess nuclear events.