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. Mr. T

    Hell Resorts. I pity the fool!

    March 28, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
  2. Juice207

    Heroic yes, scary yes. Macbookone, so true.

    March 28, 2011 at 12:17 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Dwayne Alizondo Herbert Mountain Dew Comacho

    Nobody ever talks about fusion which is still a ways off, but is essentially free energy. @Mac: I wasn't aware there were different kinds of radioactive compounds that were more stable. Interesting.
    @Neeneko: Way to politicize the issue. Lol Democracy has nothing to do with uranium reactors. If Thorium is more stable then people generally would accept it. Honestly I can't remember my government using fear tactics in regard to Thorium. You made that up to promote a communist agenda. Lol wow

    March 28, 2011 at 12:39 pm | Report abuse |
    • Kell

      Except that no one has been able to figure out how to do it and produce more energy than it takes to start the reaction....

      March 28, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Report abuse |
  4. Franky123

    This article says that no one was injured. That is not accruate. Over the next few years, more people were diagnosed with cancer than ever before.

    March 28, 2011 at 12:40 pm | Report abuse |
    • Dave

      There has yet to be any link made between cancer cases and the radiation released from TMI. In fact, the average exposure to radiation from that incident was about 1/6 of what you receive from a chest x-ray.

      My mother-in-law was diagnosed with cancer about a year after Obama was elected into office. Should I blame him for that?

      Corelation != Causation.

      March 28, 2011 at 1:13 pm | Report abuse |
    • bacos


      More people then ever before in that area were having screenings done due to the fear. Also, our methods of finding and diagnosing improved over the years.

      You would expect more to be found because we were looking harder... but there has yet to be any statistically significant correlation found.

      March 30, 2011 at 9:54 am | Report abuse |
  5. Andreas Moser

    And wasn't nothing serious supposed to happen for another 10,000 years or so?
    We continuously under-estimate the risks not only of nuclear power, but of many technologies:

    March 28, 2011 at 12:42 pm | Report abuse |
  6. Mike W

    We need more wind farms. Imagine how much power could be generated by the wind in D.C. alone!

    March 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm | Report abuse |
  7. himminy

    i work in harrisburg and live 20 miles away. this incident happened 3 years before i was born so i've lived literally my entire life breathing this air and drinking this water and have zero birth defects or anything of that nature. although my penis is abnormally large, which has caused me to be ridiculed and be an outcast my whole life because of my abnormally large penis.

    March 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Peter E

    TMI released a radiation dosage less than 2% of the average YEARLY dosage that most Americans receive. To date no cancer deaths could be conclusively linked to the incident.
    If you are truly worried about radiation, then stay away from the actual top radiation sources:
    -building materials and rocks
    -medical x-rays
    -your own body and anything else containing potassium
    -the open sky
    -smoke detectors

    March 28, 2011 at 1:31 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Limbaugh is a liberal

    Chernobyl has been the worst civilian nuclear disaster to date, and the only one actually linked to increased cancer rates. The Chernobyl accident killed a few dozen people on the spot, and is linked to 4000 cancers since then, mostly of military personel who were sent in to clean it up. Authoritative sources (i.e. NOT Greenpeace's nonsense) estimate that over the span of 70 years the Chernobyl accident will have caused cancer/premature death for up to 30,000 people.
    MEANWHILE, coal mining kills dozens of people directly here in the US EVERY YEAR, and causes the premature deaths of hundreds more. (black lung disease) Worldwide the figure is in the thousands.
    Oil accidents also kill dozens of people directly, not to mention thousands more due to our wars in the Middle East.

    March 28, 2011 at 1:36 pm | Report abuse |
  10. philly g

    i know theres a power plant in limerick, pa and the phila premium outlet is next to it. i refuse to go and shop there since the ground and air may pose a risk to my health

    March 28, 2011 at 1:48 pm | Report abuse |
  11. Sean T.

    The dangers of chemicals:

    March 28, 2011 at 1:51 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Ted

    I think if we faced the truth about the health impact of the radioisotope exposures from nuclear plant leaks and accidents, we might be able to design and operate them more safely. But they are not safe now and that is why they can't get insurance.
    Insurance companies have read this book:

    March 28, 2011 at 3:28 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Lois Tyli

    It seems that CNN is blocking my posts though I have not violated any Rules of conduct. Let's see if this one gets through...

    March 28, 2011 at 3:38 pm | Report abuse |
  14. Don

    I don't understand why so many of you are attempting to portray this event to be safer than a doctors visit. Could you be more ignorant? Sure, perhaps millions didn't die in the event and babies may not have been born with abnormalities, but to try to play this event down as an irrelevant and non-harmful part of history just baffles me... why? Perhaps next time, god forbid, an event like this happens again, your chest x-ray and other statistical comparisons won't be so accurate, and thanks to people like you, alternative energies won't be pursued because these facilities are so amazingly safe.

    March 28, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Report abuse |
  15. Big lipped reggie

    Whats was this story about i forgot ... "Oh antwan give me some more brillo and put another rock in the other pipe for me and pass it after the melt-down" but yeah as i was saying what was the story about i cant remember ?

    March 28, 2011 at 5:25 pm | Report abuse |
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