Making electricity from rocks: Bill Bishop shares fond memories of career at TMI

6 min read327 views and 421 shares Posted October 24, 2019

Retirement from a career can create a void. Sometimes memories can help fill that void.

For Bill Bishop, his 30 years of memories working at Three Mile Island are mostly fond and profound. And while he has kept abreast of the comings and goings at the Middletown nuclear power plant, there are certain happenings which have a way of jogging his memory.

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At the end of September, Three Mile Island was shut down for financial reasons related to a lack of state subsidies. While many of Bishop’s former colleagues were forced to retire early, Bishop wasn’t all that surprised by how, when, and why TMI met its final fate.

“Because the communications in that industry are so transparent, they had announced a year in advance—maybe more—they were going to close it if it didn’t get the subsidies,” said Bishop, a Lebanon native and resident. “I think a lot of people, up to the day, weren’t buying it. They were thinking ‘certainly these subsidies will come.’ But it never happened.

Bishop reviews a piece of Three Mile Island memorabilia while standing in his Lebanon home. (Jeff Falk)
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“Because of where I was in the industry, I had a better understanding of the business end of it,” added Bishop. “In June, when they made the announcement, I knew they were done. They had moved on. Exelon is a big company, the largest producer of nuclear energy in the country. Nine hundred mega-watts is not a big deal to them.”

Exelon announced the closing of Three Mile Island in the spring, and the move was expected to cause more than a hundred area employees to lose their jobs. With nuclear energy experiencing difficulties competing with natural gas and renewable sources like wind and solar, Exelon has stated that Three Mile Island has been losing money for years.

It is estimated that nationwide, nuclear energy produces about 20 percent of the country’s electricity.

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“I’ve got 30 years of blood, sweat and tears in that place,” said Bishop. “Darn right I’m sad. I have many friends who were ready to retire, but there are some who weren’t. When I think of TMI, I think of the people, the friendships, the relationships. It’s a close-knit group, as evidence by everyone still getting together.

“The reasons were financial,” continued Bishop. “The physical asset was still really good. They were set up to go for another 20 years. There are government subsidies for wind and solar, but they made small nuclear plants not competitive. The only plants shutting down around the country are the smaller plants. Exelon and several activists groups were trying to get Pennsylvania to subsidize nuclear power, just like solar and wind. Pennsylvania wasn’t fast enough to react.”

Bishop’s view of Three Mile Island as an employee from the inside varies from the public’s perception from the outside. He was hired in 1980, less than a year after the infamous accident on March 28, 1979 when TMI’s Unit Two experienced a partial meltdown.

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Construction on TMI-1 began in May 1968 and was well underway by 1970 as seen in this archival aerial photo. TMI-1 was completed in 1974. Construction on TMI-2 began in 1969 and the outlines of the tower bases can be seen above. (Penn Pilot)

“I had graduated high school, and we were throwing a football around at Cedar Crest, when all that went down,” said Bishop. “We weren’t close enough to be in that energy planning area. Nobody knew what to think. The industry was not ready to manage an event like that. But the lessons learned from TMI-2 were huge. It changed the industry. The industry changed its culture and it happened around the world.

A more recent satellite image of Three Mile Island, via Bing Maps. TMI-2 has been closed since the infamous incident in 1979.

“I was a kid (19) when I started there,” Bishop continued. “When the opportunity came up at TMI, the money was better than you could get locally. It was an advancement for me, into nuclear power. If you had a job with Met-Ed, you had a great job. You had a career.”

The accident at Three Mile Island created a world-wide distrust of the safety of nuclear energy. But within the industry it led to enhanced safety precautions.

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For nuclear energy to survive, a second accident had to be avoided at all costs.

“The lack of clear infrastructure and the unknown created the hysteria, when in fact no one was hurt and there were no large releases of radiation,” said Bishop. “The reactor still contained it, like it was supposed to. But TMI became synonymous with the perils of nuclear energy. That’s why TMI couldn’t have another accident.

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“TMI was a very safe, well-run plant. If you were going to have a nuclear plant in your backyard, TMI was the one to have,” Bishop continued. “It was very reliable. It was a great performer. We restarted TMI and made it the best operating plant in the country. That was quite an accomplishment. Nuclear energy is a more reliable source of energy than anything else. Other countries are expanding in their nuclear capabilities, and we’re reducing ours in the United States.”

Following training at Lebanon County Career and Technology Center, Bishop was originally hired as a second-class electrician. When he retired nine years ago, he did so as an outage manager.

“Every two years, TMI had to shut down and refurbish the power plant, and put new fuel in the reactor,” said Bishop. “Contractors would come into the area to help with the work. You kind of ran out of gas every two years and you had to put new fuel in the reactor. While that’s going on, you’re not generating electricity and you’re paying people to come in and work at the plant. My job was to manage those outages.

“Being in management in that business is very stressful,” continued Bishop. “The plant is running 24 hours a day. It’s all about keeping that reactor cool. Your life is about two things, generating electricity and the safety of the reactor. I was tied to a cell phone and a beeper for ten years of my career.”

A picture signed by Bishop’s colleagues on the occasion of his retirement from Three Mile Island. (Jeff Falk)

It was a mission shared by every employee who worked at Three Mile Island. There was a certain bonding that occurred during the pursuit of that mission.

“From the day I left, I kept in touch with people. I still do,” said Bishop. “I’ve been invited to a number of retirement parties. It’s a very tight group. You go through a lot of stressful times together and you develop a bond with people. The entire nuclear industry is tight, because it’s unique.

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“There’s zero tolerance for errors,” added Bishop. “If errors happen, bad things happen. There’s stress related to being error-free. You can’t make mistakes at a nuclear factory. It makes life challenging.”

The plight of Three Mile Island also seems to underscore the future of the nuclear energy industry as a whole. Only time itself will tell where it ends up.

A commemorative clock given to Three Mile Island employees, who remain a tight group. (Jeff Falk)

“You’re making electricity from rocks,” said Bishop. “After uranium is mined, it gets processed into pellets and that gets made into rods. When you put it into the reactor core, there’s a chain reaction that occurs. A lot of smart people keep tabs on that reacting. But you’re always talking about keeping that reactor cool.

“I think the biggest question people have now about TMI is, ‘What are they going to do with that place?’” Bishop added. “It’s not running any more. There’s still a lot of nuclear power in Pennsylvania still hoping to get subsidized. Nuclear is kind of hanging out there. The surrounding states are ahead of Pennsylvania, as far as subsidies go. It (TMI) was strictly economic. It was hot, straight and normal. That plant could’ve gone another 15 years.”

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