Founded in 1932, the University of Maryland’s Amateur Radio Association is one of the older clubs on campus. But don’t let the name “amateur” fool you. The club has done some serious, professional work in the past 80 years.
In March 1979, when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant had a meltdown, many radio and television news stations were having trouble getting timely and up-to-date information on the crisis as it unfolded. In the early hours of the meltdown, the possibility of widespread contamination and evacuation in the Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, area was a serious possibility. Many people in the Mid-Atlantic region also feared that nuclear radiation might contaminate water that would eventually reach the Baltimore and Washington, D.C., areas to the south.
Fortunately for Marylanders, W3EAX, the University of Maryland’s amateur radio station, was equipped and ready to help out in the emergency. Coordinating with local amateur radio operators close to Three Mile Island, “ham” radio operators relayed the latest information about the meltdown and emergency responses to other amateur operators and news stations in the Maryland area. WLMD, a radio station that used to broadcast from the Mall in Columbia, Maryland, was one of these stations that relied on W3EAX before any official press conferences or announcements were made (the first of which was not until 28 hours after the meltdown began).
In a letter from April 1979, Rich Hodge, the program director at WLMD wrote W3EAX thanking them for their service and aid during the Three Mile Island crisis. “Your radio hookup with local hams in that Pennsylvania region [Three Mile Island] allowed us to keep tabs on events as details of the disaster unfolded,” Hodge wrote. Calling W3EAX an important public service, he also wrote that “your station in College Park often had more accurate and more timely information than the wire services…and the utility’s public information office!”
More than just a recreational club on campus, the students operating station W3EAX at College Park provided an important service to Marylanders and others in the area at a critical time when there was a great deal of fear and confusion about the Three Mile Island meltdown.
To see a copy of Rich Hodge’s letter to W3EAX, click the link below.