As dawn broke over Sun City, Arizona, Ron Fountain leaned forward in his favorite chair and prayed for men he’d never met. He was watching televised coverage of the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi, one of Japan’s tsunami-stricken nuclear plants. He had no idea of the identity of the 50 employees risking their lives trying desperately to stave off a complete meltdown. But the 72-year-old Fountain felt a personal connection to the men. After all, he had once been in their shoes.
Thirty-two years ago this month, the world’s first nuclear nightmare unfolded on a spit of land in Pennsylvania’s Susquehanna River. Unlike Japan’s crisis, America’s Three Mile Island meltdown was a manmade event, the result of machine malfunctions and human errors that nearly uncorked doom. But the resulting challenge—to cool exposed fuel rods that otherwise bleed radiation—was the same, and so was the heroic response: dozens of engineers and plant operators toiling around the clock at enormous personal risk to quell a raging reactor. Fountain was among them. Now, after years of carefully tamping down his memories, he is recounting his tale nationally for the first time, his remarks tinged with fear for his Japanese counterparts. “My heart goes out to them,” he says, “because I know those guys are going to stay until the very end.”
Ironically, Fountain found his way to the Three Mile Island plant in search of a less-stressful job. He was working as a supervisor at Luden’s, the lozenge maker, but the deadlines and quotas of a management post put a strain on his heart. So the 40-year-old father of four took a job pushing a broom at TMI in 1976. “I was a janitor,” he says. A few years later, with his ticker in better health and his mind assured that nuclear power was safe, he retrained as a plant operator. “I wasn’t thinking about meltdowns or core damage,” he tells Newsweek. That all changed on the morning of March 28, 1979.
In the evening hours beforehand, Fountain had worked a normal shift in the bowels of the just-opened facility. He clocked out as usual at 11 p.m., went home and fell asleep. But it wasn’t long before his wife shook him awake. Something was wrong at the plant, she said. Someone from the control room called—Fountain needed to report. No explanation was offered and Fountain did not ask for one. “I’ll be right there,” he said, throwing on jeans and a flannel shirt.
“We had to save the plant,” Fountain says. “We didn’t think about saving our own lives.”
Designed as a radiation-proof bunker, the control room was encased in concrete, steel, and bulletproof glass, and it usually held about four men who monitored the horseshoe-shaped instrument panels. When Fountain arrived, however, about 10 people were crammed inside, all of them wearing respirators. A general emergency alarm wailed, hundreds of warning lights flashed and the radiation meters showed a maximum reading. Someone tossed Fountain a respirator, too. “What the heck?” he responded. He had never worn one.
The workers had lost the means to cool the reactor, and the plant’s exposed uranium core had overheated, partially melting into a glassy orb and spewing radiation into the atmosphere. Pregnant women and small children were told to evacuate from the surrounding area, which saw a total exodus of around 140,000 souls, including Fountain’s own family. Now the crew needed to get water into the reactor to stymie a total meltdown—the same challenge facing Japanese nuclear workers, whose total numbers have now surged past 300. At least one worker has been hospitalized, according to the national Yomiuri newspaper.
Fountain knew the guts of the TMI facility as well as anyone, and after hours of others button-pushing in the control room, the team turned to him to unlock an obscure feed line for water. Asked later by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission why he agreed to enter an area with radiation readings off the charts, he said he didn’t consider it; none of the workers did. “We had to save the plant,” he says. “We didn’t think about saving our own lives.” It proved to be an almost fatal reaction. Once outside the control room, Fountain hyperventilated and nearly lost consciousness. He slumped against the wall of a pitch-black, pipe-lined hallway, no more than 30 feet from the valve he needed, sobbing, and asking God for help. “I wasn’t a real prayer warrior at that time,” he concedes, although he has since become one. When he finally opened the valve, he says, the team was able to cool the core for the first time since the crisis began.
Fountain was too “crapped up” to return to the control room for any commiseration. So he took a decontamination shower alone, clothes on, and then drove home through empty streets to his empty house. He gardened to calm himself. In the months to come, he would be diagnosed with a stress condition, and given relaxation tapes with the sound of rain. Other workers coped less effectively, turning on friends and family. All around the neighborhood, marriages exploded, men came undone, and careers disintegrated. A few years later, Fountain moved to Arizona, where he worked for 15 years in quality assurance at the Palo Verde Nuclear Generating Station.
For similar sacrifices, the Fukushima 50 have already been dubbed “suicide workers” and “modern-day samurai.” They have been feted via Twitter and fawned over by the Japanese media. But to Fountain, the workers are merely exemplary members of the nuclear priesthood, a global cadre of men, and some women, who live by a code of self-sacrifice that means staying even when the alarms say go. “This job has its hazards,” he says, noting that within three months of the Chernobyl meltdown nearly 30 first responders had died. “That’s just the way it is.”
Tony Dokoupil is a staff writer and editor at Newsweek.