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Lesson Plan

Nuclear Power: From Three Mile Island to Fukushima

About this Video
This 12-minute video shows students how attitudes towards nuclear energy have changed since the 1950s, when its arrival was greeted with mass acclaim and its prospects seemed unlimited. The video clarifies why this optimism soured quickly when America experienced its first major nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, and how the nuclear industry’s gradual recovery from this event was halted in 2011 following the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. In its discussion of the recent re-emergence of nuclear power as a means of mitigating climate change, the video sets up a classroom discussion about whether nuclear power’s benefits outweigh its costs.
  • How nuclear power was promoted and regarded when it was first introduced.
  • How accidents at Three Mile Island and Fukushima Daiichi have affected public attitudes towards nuclear energy.
  • How nuclear energy relates to the current debate over climate change.
  • Social Studies
  • Environment
  • Science
  • U.S. History
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Domestic Policies
  • Jimmy Carter
  • 1950s America
  • 1970s America
  • 1980s America
  • The Postwar Era (1945-1980)
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • 21st Century
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

In March of 1979, the news of an accident at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania punctured the promise of the Nuclear Age.

The accident then was the worst on record at a commercial nuclear power plant. Some 140,000 residents were evacuated. It took three weeks to bring the plant under control. And the subsequent cleanup took more than a decade and cost nearly $1 billion.

Overnight, it seemed, the promise sold in the 1950s of a brave, new world operating on energy from clean, efficient nuclear power plants, had turned into a nightmare of questions and worries.

The accident fed the rise of the anti-nuclear movement in America and around the globe. Many planned reactors were scrapped, while some existing ones were closed down.

But during the last decade, some environmentalists, worried about the continuing impact of fossil fuels on global warming, began looking to nuclear power as a solution.

By 2010, President Obama announced $8 billion in loan guarantees to break ground on the first new nuclear plant in 30 years.

Then, in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami rocked the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, and triggered one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, and raised questions all over again.

The plant’s management has estimated it will take 30 to 40 years to clean up contaminated areas and decommission the plant.

Essential Questions
  • How did the meltdown at Three Mile Island affect public opinion towards nuclear energy?
  • Before the meltdown at Three Mile Island, how was nuclear energy viewed? What claims were made about how nuclear energy would benefit humanity?
  • By 2010, how had public opinion changed about nuclear power? What steps did President Obama take to expand nuclear energy production?
  • In 2011, what combination of events led to the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi? How did the meltdown affect public perceptions of nuclear energy?
Lesson Procedure
  • Considering the combination of events that led to the Fukushima Daiichi meltdown, is it really possible to build nuclear power plants that are safe enough to withstand every possible contingency, malfunction, accident, or event?
  • If the cost of nuclear energy were a major nuclear meltdown every decade, would you consider that an acceptable price to pay for the reduction in carbon emissions?
  • Michael Shellenberger argues that most younger environmentalists are more concerned about climate change than the dangers posed by nuclear energy. Do you agree? Which are you more worried about?
  • Shellenberger also argues that it’s “delusional” to think that the energy needs of nine billion people can be met with wind and solar. Do you agree? Is there a practical way to reduce carbon emissions AND to meet the planet’s energy needs without nuclear energy?
Additional Resources
See how teacher Derek Dubossi is using this video in his environmental science class. Retro Report
Transcript for "Nuclear Power's Public Opinion Rollercoaster from Three Mile Island to Fukushima" Retro Report
“Three Mile Island, and Nuclear Hopes and Fears” Retro Report

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.

Skill 1.C: Explain environmental concepts or models in applied contexts.

Big Idea: Energy Transfer (ENO).

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