WASHINGTON, March 31, 1979 (UPI) - President Carter says the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident "will probably lead inexorably" to more stringent safety standards for America's nuclear power facilities. Carter was briefed repeatedly yesterday on developments at the plant in the Harrisburg, Pa., area where severe damage resulted in release of uncontrolled radioactive emissions, and he left word on retiring to be awakened at any hour during the night.
The president planned to travel to Wisconsin later today for appearances at political fundraising events in Wausau and Milwaukee. However, press secretary Jody Powell said "it remains to be seen" whether Carter will be able to make the trip.
He ordered federal agencies to assist Pennsylvania authorities in the fields of safety, health and welfare during the crisis.
The White House approached the accident in a low key manner yesterday morning, saying the president was concerned and had been in touch with Pennsylvania Gov. Richard Thornburgh. By early afternoon, however, presidential aides went into high gear and the White House took on a crisis air.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission caused widespread anxiety when officials conceded there was a possibility the overheated nuclear core at the plant might reach the stage of meltdown unless experts can find a way to cool it off within the next few days.
In a meltdown - the most dangerous of all nuclear power plant accidents - the nuclear core becomes so hot it burns through containing barriers into the ground, transmitting lethal radiation to the surrounding area.
But Powell told reporters "as for the possibility of a meltdown, all I can say that report is at the very least speculative."
While maintaining that the primary decisions, such as mass evacuation, remained with the Pennsylvania governor and local authorities, Carter directed federal agencies to move to the state in its hour of need.
Despite all these assistance efforts, Powell said the primary responsibility for restoring the plant to safe conditions rests with the Metropolitan Edison utility company, which holds the license for the Three Mile Island Plant.
"The minute-by-minute authority is in the hands of the licensee," he said, but "the NRC, with the licensee, is making every possible effort to reduce the release" of radioactivity into the atmosphere.
But he also stressed that Harold Denton, commission chief operating officer responsible for nuclear safety, has the authority to step in at any time that he deems necessary if he feels proper action is not being taken to cope with the dangerous situation.