March 28th, 2011
10:33 AM ET

America's worst nuclear accident: 32nd anniversary of Three Mile Island

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. 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.

soundoff (67 Responses)
  1. Rob

    OMG I can't believe what you are saying. Ok so if there is an auto accident that unfortunatley a couple people die, it is nothing like the earth and atmosphere being polluted and ruined, and changing life as we now knoe it. OMG you say you worked with the stuff for 30 years. How much longer do they last. Are they in the time period yet that they are patching things to get by and save money. It is like our infrastructure, sewers water lines etc they are going to wear down and then what? The last time a car wrecked on the highway near my house, it was cleaned up in an hour. I didn't have to evacuate my State due to toxic chemicals that cause cancer. People die all the time anyway. I'm not even talking about dying. I'm talking about polluting the earth and making it un liveable.

    March 29, 2011 at 10:21 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Minor Threat

    If xenophobia had not killed nuclear power in the United States in the late 1970's, there's a good chance that we'd have all been driving electric cars for the past 20 years; and uncounted billions of tons of carbon dioxide would never been sucked out of the ground, burned in power plants, and exhausted into our atmosphere. So let's state the obvious. The immediate reaction to that statement is "OK, that may be true, but look at all the new problems we'd have created with Chernobyl-type disasters and lethal nuclear waste." Fair enough, and important questions, to be sure. Let's start with a quick primer on the various types of nuclear reactors.

    So-called Generation I reactors were the early prototypes developed by many nations, and actually placed into production in a few cases. Generation I reactors were characterized by fundamentally unsafe designs, and kludged layers of afterthought safety systems. When most nuclear nations began deploying commercial reactors, they were usually of Generation II design. Generation II reactors were significantly improved, but these changes were primarily evolutionary. Most of the commercial plants in operation in the United States are Generation II designs. A little over ten years ago, Generation III designs began appearing in some of the world's most advanced nuclear nations. Generation III reactors incorporate not only evolutionary improvements, but also revolutionary changes such as fuel cycles that result in much less nuclear waste; reduced capacity for the creation of weapons-grade plutonium; and passive safety designs wherein the reaction cannot be sustained in the event of a problem and the system effectively shuts itself down, by virtue of its basic design. The newest plants being designed for commercial use are called Generation III+, which incorporate all the newest knowledge from operating Generation III designs. If a new reactor was approved and built in the United States today, it would be a Generation III+ design. Even if every plant employee keeled over with a heart attack, neither a Chernobyl nor a Three Mile Island type accident would be possible; the systems are fundamentally redesigned so that the reaction cannot be sustained if things go outside the parameters.

    The Idaho National Laboratory is the United States' primary advanced reactor research facility, and they've outlined six new reactor types to be developed for Generation IV. The designs take everything to a new level: Lower cost, safer designs, near-total elimination of nuclear waste, and reduced risk of nuclear weapons proliferation. There are also Generation V reactors in the ether, but these are primarily the domain of late-night rumination sessions at the lab, fueled by tequila and pot.

    Then there's fusion power, which is everyone's ultimate goal. Fusion reactors have the profound advantages of using simple tritium or deuterium for fuel, producing no significant waste, and absolute safety since if anything goes even slightly off-kilter, the plasma disappears and you have no reaction. It's the ultimate in cheap, clean, safe, renewable energy, despite gross misunderstandings of the technology expressed by Greenpeace and other factions. The first operational tokamak fusion reactor for research is being built by the international ITER consortium in France and is expected to come online in 2016.

    So you can probably guess that Three Mile Island was probably not the newest and safest design, and you'd be right. It was a Generation II design. It was the first and only significant nuclear accident in American history. A broken valve caused coolant to leak into a containment facility designed for that purpose, raising the temperature of the core and causing a partial meltdown. Despite significant confusion on the part of the operators (this being their first experience with an accident), and a somewhat lengthy chain of errors and misunderstandings, everything eventually worked out just as it should. There were no deaths or injuries, and despite 25,000 people living within five miles of the plant, nobody was exposed to any radiation worse than a single chest x-ray. All the studies predict zero cases of future cancer, despite ongoing lawsuits that the courts continue to find to be without merit. With proper perspective, Three Mile Island can (and should) be characterized as a shining example of how well the safety systems work, even in the face of human error and old-fashioned reactor design.

    But that's not the way it was perceived. By an unfortunate coincidence, Jane Fonda's movie The China Syndrome about a nuclear accident came out only twelve days before Three Mile Island. The Cold War with Brezhnev was in full force and the words "nuclear accident" were simply too much for a scientifically uninformed public. Three Mile Island became the first nail in the coffin of American nuclear power.

    Seven years later in 1986, things got much worse. Chernobyl was suffering from inadequate funding. Much basic maintenance had never been performed. It had only a skeleton crew, nearly all of whom were untrained workers from the local coal mine. The only manager with nuclear plant experience had been a worker installing small reactors on board Soviet submarines. Some genius decided to run a risky test of a type that no experienced nuclear engineer would ever gamble on. The test was to shut down the water pumps, which must run constantly in that type of reactor; and then find out whether the turbines, spinning on their momentum alone, had enough energy to restart and run the pumps during the forty-second delay before the backup diesel generators would kick in. The test was so risky that one faction within the plant deliberately disconnected some backup systems, trying to make the test too dangerous to attempt. The test was run anyway. It didn't work, the pumps couldn't keep up, the graphite core caught fire, the coal miners couldn't find any shovels so they didn't know what to do, and the reactor exploded. If you think I'm exaggerating this, there are extensive resources both online and in print, if you really want the hairy truth. In this short space I'm probably not even giving you ten percent of what a travesty this was — I'm tempted to call it a joke but it's so not funny. For example, they scheduled this right in the middle of a shift change, and the new workers coming in didn't even know what was going on.

    Two people died that day, and some 30 to 60 people were dead within three months. Predictions of eventual cancer deaths caused by the radiation run from 1,000 to 4,000. And, of course, the damage to the local environment is extensive and difficult to estimate. The terror of a radiation cloud blowing across Europe was the second nail in the coffin of American nuclear power.

    Not only was Chernobyl a monumental failure of the human element, the plant was a Generation I design, specifically an RBMK reactor, which is generally regarded as the least safe reactor type ever built. One design flaw is that the core used combustible graphite, and this distinction is the main reason that Chernobyl-type disasters are not possible in most reactors around the world. Only a very few Generation I designs are still in use, all in the former Soviet Union, and all have been retrofitted with improvements intended to prevent this type of accident. Other nations have long been lobbying for the closure of these reactors, and rightfully so.

    How do the dangers of nuclear energy compare to the dangers of fossil fuel energy? A report in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that some 50,000-100,000 Americans die each year from lung cancer caused by particulate air pollution, the biggest cause of which is coal-burning power plants in the midwest and east. Even taking the maximum predicted death toll from Chernobyl, we would need a Chernobyl-sized accident every three weeks to make nuclear power as deadly as coal and oil already is. Shall I repeat that? If the world was filled with Generation I reactors run by feuding coal miners, we would need a worst-case scenario every three weeks just to match the US death toll we've imposed upon ourselves by clinging to our current fossil fuel system. Next time you see a hippie cheering the defeat of nuclear power in the US, realize that a healthy environment and saving lives are clearly not their priorities.

    Well, maybe to them it's more about the future of the planet than about saving lives today. Maybe they just don't want to see high-level nuclear waste created that's going to poison the planet for tens of thousands of years. I can see that. But here's the problem with that logic: The plants we're designing now produce less waste than ever. Some on the drawing board produce none at all. We've already created most of the waste that we ever will. It already exists. It's out there. Lobbying against future cleaner plants won't make the existing waste go away. It's out there now in temporary facilities in neighborhoods all across the country, way more vulnerable than it would be in proper permanent storage in Yucca Mountain (however, the Yucca Mountain facility has been canceled).

    Opponents say that Yucca Mountain is geologically unstable or otherwise too hazardous, so the waste might leak out. Well, trust me: The location of the Yucca Mountain site was one of the most lengthy and expensive decisions the government ever made. What do you think they were doing with all that time and money, picking their noses? Well, it was a government program, so a large part of the time and budget probably was spent on nose mining. Nevertheless, this was one of the most scrutinized decisions ever made. Environmentally speaking it's as good a site as we could hope for. If you're concerned about it, go to a neutral and reliable source and research it personally. From every scrap of reason I can muster, environmentalists should be Yucca Mountain's #1 fans. I can't imagine why they prefer to leave the waste out where it is now, unless they are driven more by ideology than by science. Who would have thought that?

    There is a safe and clean solution to our energy crisis, gasoline prices, and global warming. It's the latest generation nuclear reactor.

    March 29, 2011 at 11:11 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Rob

    Minor Threat
    Thank you for the very informative comment.

    March 30, 2011 at 12:22 am | Report abuse |
  4. Emil

    At some point in the future no matter what or how safe nuclear power plants and drilling for oil, our government claim them to be, They are not safe. Time and time again BAD things have resulted from them. The very air that we breathe is being polluted, our oceans are slowly becoming a toxic waste, and the ground that we all reside on is becoming contaminated. Yet our governing body insists that these things are safe. When some disaster happens,who is out there cleaning or taking care of these disasters, Definetely not our governing body. So the next time some disaster happens our governing body is the first to run and hide or get as far away as poosible, BECAUSE THEY KNOW THESE ARE NOT SAFE. They are only concerned about thier own personal little world and not the NATION OR THE VERY WORLD WE ALL CALL HOME. Wake up those of you in power start protecting this one and only planet we live on, PLEASE.

    March 30, 2011 at 12:55 am | Report abuse |
  5. Rob

    What still scares me most is thet you know darn well they wouldn't tell us if they something bad was happening or about to happen. I bet if we were going to get hit by a meteor we wouldn't find out until we are seeing the shadow of it hitting the earth. For some reason our governent thinks it is OK to keep secrets from us. Why did the citizens ever start letting them get away with that.
    I heard that there is a contractor who has some contracts to build underground bunkers for a few wealthy people and he can't hardly get the air filtration systems he needs because our government and is supposedly building underground cities all over the place. <- (not stating as a known fact, just something I heard) Sounds about par for the course anyway.

    March 30, 2011 at 11:34 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Kristen

    This was not the worse Nuclear accident in America's past. The Santa Susana Field Lab in Simi Valley was. You might have heard of it if the government didn't hide it from you.

    March 12, 2012 at 4:42 pm | Report abuse |
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