Three Mile Island, and Nuclear Hopes and Fears

More than three decades after the accident at Three Mile Island cast a shadow on the atomic dream, is America again ready to give nuclear energy a chance?

By Clyde Haberman
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There is a certain irony in the shorthand that experts commonly use when discussing this country's closest brush with nuclear cataclysm: TMI. Today, those letters are widely understood to mean “too much information.” But well before the advent of social media, TMI referred principally to the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station, a power plant on the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania. Disaster struck there in 1979, and when it did, too much information — solid, unassailable information — was not part of the mix. Months later, a presidential commission cited a “lack of communication at all levels” as cause for grave concern. Americans were frightened, and not just those in Pennsylvania. Fear was intensified because, as the commission said, their right to know what was going on had been sorely compromised.

Then again, so many things went wrong on the Susquehanna back in 1979. Disaster struck at 4 a.m. on March 28 when water-coolant pumps failed at the plant's new second reactor, known as TMI-2. That led to the reactor's overheating, with the temperature rising steadily after a stuck valve misled the operators into halting the flow of emergency cooling water. Half the core was later found to have melted.

Details of the accident are recounted in the latest offering from Retro Report, a weekly series of video documentaries examining major news stories from the past and their lessons for today. In a nutshell, TMI-2 lurched through a series of crises for nearly a week. The presidential panel later found plenty of blame to go around. The plant's designer, Babcock & Wilcox; the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission; the local utility, Metropolitan Edison; TMI-2 managers and workers; and the news media collectively — none were spared in a report carrying the subtitle “Need to Change.”

The worst of it fell on March 30, when radiation was purposefully released into the air to relieve pressure within the system. That action fed apprehension beyond the plant's concrete walls that the situation had spun out of control. Rumors flew. So did thoughts of a possible mass evacuation. Pennsylvania's governor, Richard L. Thornburgh, was loath to go that far, but he did advise pregnant women and small children near the island to find more distant shelter. Contributing to the pervasive dread was a film that had just come out, “The China Syndrome,” a thriller about a safety crisis at a nuclear power plant in California. (“China syndrome” in the nuclear industry's argot describes a meltdown so severe that the material might burrow clear to the other side of the world, to China.) During the crisis, some moviegoers emerged from theaters to see scary newspaper headlines about an unsettling scenario in Pennsylvania evocative of the on-screen terror they had just witnessed.

No China syndrome took place at TMI. Nor were there immediate deaths or injuries. As for long-term physical health effects, the thrust of most studies — though by no means all — is that the disaster's impact was negligible.

The psychological toll, however, was immense. Even before the accident, America’s romance with nuclear power had begun to chill. Three Mile Island sent it into the deep freeze. Many years passed before the Nuclear Regulatory Commission got a chance to review an application to build a new power plant. The devastating 1986 Chernobyl nightmare in Ukraine, the worst catastrophe at a nuclear power plant, hardly reassured wary people, even those willing to chalk up that horror to useless Soviet engineering and management. Now we have the continuing ordeal of the Fukushima Daiichi plant in northeastern Japan, crippled by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Small wonder that strong antinuclear sentiments are expressed, like those in Mother Jones on the heels of the tsunami, to the effect that “replacing coal and oil with nuclear power is like trading heroin for crack — different addictions, but no less unhealthy or risky.”

Yet American attitudes on nuclear power, as measured by opinion polls, are far from irrevocably negative. As TMI faded in collective memory, the popularity of that energy source has waxed and waned, each rise tempered by a new cause for alarm, notably Chernobyl and Fukushima. Many power plants that had been on the drawing boards before 1979 were built. In the last few years, new ones have been proposed, encouraged by President Obama, who has described nuclear energy as necessary — along with renewable sources like wind and solar — in any plan to wean the country from fossil fuels. The need for swift action would seem greater than ever, given new warnings from a United Nations panel that time is running short for countries to adopt strategies to keep worldwide carbon emissions from reaching intolerable levels.

It is hard to grasp how American reliance on nuclear energy could disappear soon, if ever. According to the World Nuclear Association, a London-based group that promotes nuclear power, there are 104 nuclear reactors in the United States. They accounted in 2011 for 19 percent of this country’s total electricity output. While that is half of what coal-fired power plants generated, and roughly 60 percent of that produced by plants relying on natural gas, it is still a lot. Projections suggest that America’s energy needs will only keep growing.

Still, nuclear power scares the pants off people unlike any other energy form. The phenomenon is hardly new. Baby boomers grew up with a stream of 1950s horror movies like “Godzilla” and “The Amazing Colossal Man,” premised on radiation’s monstrous consequences. Fast forward to Chernobyl, whose psychological impact was reflected in a 2005 study conducted under the aegis of several international groups, including the International Atomic Energy Agency. This review concluded that “the mental health impact of Chernobyl is the largest public health problem unleashed by the accident to date.” A year after Fukushima, Spencer Weart, a physicist and science historian, wrote for this newspaper’s Dot Earth blog that nuclear fear retained “its status as the supreme horror,” a psychological malaise that “does not accompany other materials that put people at risk of cancer and other deadly illness.”

Could the events at Three Mile Island happen again? Not very likely, at least not at Three Mile Island itself. TMI-2 was permanently shut down, and TMI-1, the first reactor there, would seem not long for this world; it is expected to be decommissioned, a process that was supposed to begin this year but has been delayed until 2034.

But is that enough to allay all nuclear fears in this country? Many TMI-era reactors are still around. So it is perhaps not TMI, the modern TMI, to suggest that the probable answer is no.

CLYDE HABERMAN, a regular contributor to Retro Report, has been a reporter, columnist and editorial writer for The New York Times, where he spent nearly 13 years based in Tokyo, Rome and Jerusalem. Subscribe to our newsletter here and follow us on Twitter @RetroReport.

This article first appeared in The New York Times.