Harold Denton, a 1958 graduate of NC State’s nuclear engineering program whose calm demeanor and cool competence reassured Americans after the nation’s worst nuclear accident, died at his home in Knoxville, Tennessee. He was 80.
Denton, then director of the federal Office of Nuclear Reactor Regulation, took charge of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania after one of its reactors suffered a partial meltdown in March, 1979. Arriving in a White House helicopter just two days after the accident, Denton took steps to stabilize the reactor core and to prevent an explosion of hydrogen gas that had built up in the main reactor building.
Denton became an instant media star. His news conferences were carried live on national television and he was profiled in People magazine. He conducted President Jimmy Carter and Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh on tours of the nuclear facility to calm public fears.
“Harold Denton was the true hero of the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis,” Thornburgh told the Harrisburg Patriot-News.
In a 1980 interview with Technician reporter Arlene Denny, Denton insisted that nuclear power still had an important role to play as an energy source in the United States. “I envision a need for more graduates [in nuclear engineering],” he said. He noted that federal regulators had moved swiftly after the accident to improve safety at the nation’s 200 nuclear plants. And, in fact, he was responsible for implementing many of those measures.
Denton was born Feb. 24, 1936, in Rocky Mount. At NC State, he paid his tuition by sweeping floors and by tutoring the football team, according to the Washington Post. He joined the Atomic Energy Commission in 1963 and then worked for its successor, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, until his retirement in 1993.
He is survived by his wife of 57 years, the former Lucinda Oliver of Knoxville, three children, seven grandchildren and a great-grandson.