Richard Thornburgh, who steered Pennsylvania through the Three Mile Island nuclear plant meltdown beginning on March 28, 1979, and later led the Justice Department under Reagan and the first President Bush, died Dec. 30. He was 88 years old.
New York Times reporter Robert D. McFadden wrote the following in Thornburgh’s obituary:
“Three Mile Island, 10 miles south of the State Capitol on the Susquehanna River, was no China Syndrome. Overheated nuclear fuel pellets melted, a containment was breached and leaking radiation contaminated the plant and escaped into the air. But persistent confusion over what had happened and the extent of the danger, compounded by dire warnings by antinuclear activists, left the public disconcerted.
“Taking charge of the crisis, Governor Thornburgh was a calm voice against panic and made decisions that proved to be correct. He ordered a precautionary evacuation of pregnant women and young children in a five-mile radius around the plant. About 140,000 people left. And when a false report spread that the plant might blow up, he consulted experts, called reporters in and announced that no such danger existed.
“’You have to reassure people,’ he said. ‘You have to go before the cameras and microphones and tell them what you know and what you don’t. You have to stop the rumors, and, of course, you have to make decisions. There isn’t any Republican or Democratic way to deal with a nuclear crisis. Nobody has ever had to deal with this kind of accident before.’”