As Japan struggles with a nuclear crisis at a power plant damaged during the March 11 earthquake and tsunami, America is marking the 32nd anniversary of its worst nuclear disaster: Three Mile Island.
On March 28, 1979, a partial nuclear meltdown occurred at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg.
When a valve at the plant malfunctioned, dangerous amounts of radioactive gases and iodine-131 were released. At first, Metropolitan Edison, the owner of the plant, insisted that it was a minor incident. However, the scope of the crisis became clear as investigators tried to assess the damage. Members of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission called for an emergency evacuation of the area, but the NRC outraged the community after approving the direct release of 40,000 gallons of radioactive waste water into the Susquehanna River. No one was injured, but the fear that a nuclear meltdown with deadly consequences could happen in the U.S. became frighteningly real. CNN.com asks: "Is the fear realistic?"
CNN Radio spoke with Tom Kauffman and Nat Goldhaber, who were key players in the Three Mile Island incident. Kauffman was a plant systems operator, and he showed up for work to hear an emergency alarm ringing and the control room a beehive of activity. Goldhaber, in charge of energy issues for the state, began his day about 7 a.m. with a call telling him that there had been a major accident at Three Mile Island and that radiation was heading toward the town of Goldsboro.
Kauffman and Goldhaber discussed their experiences and the kinship they feel with workers trying to stabilize the damaged reactors in Japan.
"The fact that they stayed there and they worked hard to get things under control, as they are even now, is nothing less than a heroic effort," Kauffman said. "One of the big lessons learned from the accident at Three Mile Island is you have to have the communications infrastructure in place ... so when something does happen, you can get information out quickly that people understand so they don't face that uncertainty... or misinformation that can cause fear."
Learn more about how Japan's ongoing crisis is affecting how America deals with its own nuclear power questions, and read a report on the scars left a year after the Three Mile Island crisis.