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. anonymous


    March 28, 2011 at 10:37 am | Report abuse |
  2. Rodney

    I'll give you a pole

    March 28, 2011 at 10:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Nick

      give him a rod..ney.

      March 28, 2011 at 1:40 pm | Report abuse |
  3. MacbookOne

    If the US had gone with the Thorium reactors developed at the same time these dangerous Uranium reactors were developed we would not have these problems. Google Thorium reactors. The Chinese, once again, are jumping in front with a technology we developed and are poised to maximize it's benefit at our expense. India's rapidly advancing nuclear energy program is focused almost exclusively on Thorium reactors. They are inherently safe and will never melt down. Obama needs to pivot and support this technology with all the might of the state. This is how he can "Win the future".

    March 28, 2011 at 11:02 am | Report abuse |
    • whoa

      wow Mac, where did you learn to think like that?

      March 28, 2011 at 11:25 am | Report abuse |
    • Neeneko

      Thorium, sodium, pebble bed, even breeder reactors... there are plenty of technologies that are a lot better then the dated type we are using... that is one of the problems with a democratic system.. policy is often set to appease people easily scared by media and movies.... while china and its system of government has a lot of bad sides, it does have the plus of being able to say 'screw you, this is good technology and we need it'.

      March 28, 2011 at 11:29 am | Report abuse |
    • pointless1

      It's all about $$, not functionality... Thorium is the way to go in morality to bring soaring costs way down, to reduce possible issues like we see today with uranium reactors but it's less lucrative to the pocket book of those who run it....

      March 28, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
    • None

      Canada has Candu technology for sale.

      March 28, 2011 at 9:46 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Neeneko

    Actually, the Sodium Reactor Experiment in at the Santa Susana Field Laboratory was America's worst nuclear accident, but it didn't get anywhere near the press coverage so it has become a bit of a footnote.

    March 28, 2011 at 11:26 am | Report abuse |
    • amp

      Ferri I was sodium cooled and almost did in Detroit.

      March 28, 2011 at 2:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. marzbar16

    The words disaster and meltdown should not be used at all to describe this incident. An event totally overexaggerated by the media to generate fear and outcry in the public.

    March 28, 2011 at 11:35 am | Report abuse |
    • Teresa*


      March 28, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Report abuse |
  6. bigshlong

    Yea! scary! Like that meteor flying over my head a bazillion lightyears away thats going to crash on my head

    March 28, 2011 at 11:41 am | Report abuse |
    • jared

      very improbably but non the less...Possible

      March 28, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Report abuse |
    • Nick


      March 28, 2011 at 1:43 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Mr. T

    Marzbar16 I pity you fool!

    March 28, 2011 at 11:43 am | Report abuse |
  8. James

    Same amount of time since minimum Wage was raised.

    March 28, 2011 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
  9. Just Wondering

    Could it be that's why there's so many thyroid cancer cases in my family from NJ.

    March 28, 2011 at 11:57 am | Report abuse |
    • Teresa*


      March 28, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Snowman in Canada

    It is myoppinion that nuclear is a poor option, the consqyences far out weigh the benefits. We need to change the way people think. As time goes forward and we get serious about alternative energy, we will imporve on what we have for solar and wind power, and likely discover new methods. We should be looking at the individual house, and equiping it with solar panels, geothermal heating, and wind if possible. If we are able to generate even 40% of the requirements of each house, that would be good for everyone. It will take alot of money and alot of time, but if we don't start sometime, it will never happen and we will never grow beyond where we are now. If we can generate enough power for the basics, so if the power grid goes down, we will still have what we need to get by, that would be good planning. It is very easy to say it should be done, very difficult to implement, are the benefits worth it?

    March 28, 2011 at 11:59 am | Report abuse |
    • conradshull

      Yes, a lot of money and large amount most have no concept of.

      March 28, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kell

      Don't get me wrong, solar and wind are great, but what happens on the days/nights the sun doesn't shine or the wind doesn't blow? The energy grid still needs to have baseline power (i.e. stable constant power sources that work 24 hours a day every day).

      March 28, 2011 at 1:42 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Snowman in Canada

    sorry about the bad typing

    March 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Blaqb0x

    MASS PANIC!!!!! Wait... How many people died in the Three mile Island accident?

    March 28, 2011 at 12:00 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Blaqb0x

    This place was worse.

    March 28, 2011 at 12:06 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Muujguu

    To regret that. Nuclear isn't better choice for energy.

    March 28, 2011 at 12:08 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Lucifer

    Don't worry about radiation, this is the best news I've heard, to all of you, I invite you to the most beautiful place you have seen, Hell Resorts, we have a perfect climate with a temperature of 35,000 degrees Celsius, pls call to make your reservation, 1800 666 666 ask for Mr.Warm

    March 28, 2011 at 12:13 pm | Report abuse |
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