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. mcsw

    I went to school not far from 3 mile island and they still do drills on campus and every year update your contact information and your family's so that if something like that happened again they would know if you could return home or whether you would have to go somewhere else with other students.

    March 28, 2011 at 5:31 pm | Report abuse |
  2. ole lady

    I grew up living near TMI and have been diagnosed with cancer. Radiation causes cancer and they radiate you to kill the cancer. Radiation treatments deteriorating my body and shortening my lifespan. My heart breaks when I look at my daughter and her two small babies. I surely don't want them to go have to fight this same battle.

    March 28, 2011 at 9:00 pm | Report abuse |
  3. Eduff564

    ...the TMI accident released less than 20 curies of iodine-131, a dangerous radioactive isotope. This was out of the estimated 10 billion curies that were contained in the reactor vessel. During the accident, the reactor vessel was not breached, as has apparently happened at Fukushima-Daiichi, and happened at Chernobyl. A *tiny* amount of gasses were vented to the atmosphere to release pressure in the core. At least five studies have shown that there has not been a measurable increase in the number of cancer deaths around the plant. Elevated levels of radioactive elements in milk were never found, as would be expected in the event of a large release of radiation.
    Yet this article notes that "dangerous amounts of radioactive gases and iodine-131 were released," without giving specific numbers, and clearly without any scientific basis since few studies have found that the accident had little effect on the cancer rates in the surrounding area. If we're concerned about these minuscule levels of radiation, why don't we just ground the US aircraft fleet, because you'll get more radiation from a five hour flight than from living next to any nuclear plant in the United States, or from the TMI accident, for that matter.
    I've watched in astonishment (and laughed at the irony) as several CNN reporters and news articles have addressed the question "Has the US media overhyped this nuclear crisis?", and it has, because fear generates ratings. CNN would love the fear to be realistic, because it would have a huge front page story that would last until the cows come home. But why not start to report the truth: nuclear power is a safe, reliable, greenhouse gas free way of generating our electricity.

    March 28, 2011 at 10:56 pm | Report abuse |
  4. happyhow

    Nuclear power is the best solution to our energy needs in this country. In the past 30 years there have been far more people killed in airplane crashes, more people killed in car crashes and more people died from cancer, than from nuclear rediation. If we used solar energy and wind power to solve our energy needs, we would have to cover a huge area of the United States. When the first windmill farm was built in California, people complained about the noise and the large number of birds that were being killed when they flew into them.
    In the U.S. no nuclear workers or members of the public have ever died as a result of exposure to radiation due to a commercial nuclear reactor incident (Three Mile Island, Browns Ferry, etc.).
    I have inspected nuclear power plants for over 30 years and I have never been exposed to above-allowable limits during my career. I have inspected nuclear plants in the U.S., South Korea, Mexico and Canada. A nuclear power plant will only do what it is told to do. The Chernoble reactor was also used to enrich uranium to build weapons. The plant had no containment around the reactor to prevent the spread of radiation. Three Mile Island was caused because all of the safetiy mechanisms were disabled while some testing was being performed. When things got out of control, the operators couldn't shut down the reactor safely. The Browns Ferry incident was caused by a worker looking for a air leakage in the containment with a candle. When the leakage was found, the flame was sucked into the building causing a fire. The Canadian Cando reactors are no different than the ones in the USA, except they operate in the horizontal position. The reactor is divided into four sections. The advantage to this design is that the reactor doesn.t have to be shut down for fuel rod replacement. Just the section where fuel is being replaced.

    March 28, 2011 at 11:42 pm | Report abuse |
  5. Santos L. Halper

    It's pronounced "nuke-ya-ler"

    March 29, 2011 at 8:43 am | Report abuse |
  6. Sy2502

    It is becoming very troubling to me how irrational people are. The nuclear issue has really made it plain to me that the number of people who actually use their rational brain instead of their emotional, irrational brain is incredibly low. We still commemorate the anniversary of something that made no damage or victims. Why? I think "nuclear" was made into the bogeyman due to the cold war, and unfortunately, some people are still stuck in that mode. The selective attention they give to all the data on nuclear energy is truly troubling in its display of poor critical thinking. The USA has 100+ nuclear plants that never caused trouble, but what do people always mention? Chernobyl. No matter that there's been 1 Chernobyl and 100 perfectly safe nuclear plants, let's ignore the good news and let's get knee jerking reactions with the one and only problematic plant in history.
    These, btw, are the same irrational individuals all for electric cars. And where do you think the energy to charge those electric cars is going to come from? Thin air? Oh, I know, you want your cake and eat it too!!! No power plants AND electric cars. That they don't even stop one minute to consider how preposterous this position is, frankly, scares the heck out of me. These people get to vote!

    March 29, 2011 at 1:04 pm | Report abuse |
  7. Name*Nate

    I hate republicans

    March 29, 2011 at 3:09 pm | Report abuse |
  8. Planet X

    May God be with us all.

    March 29, 2011 at 4:28 pm | Report abuse |
  9. Rob

    I just can't understand, knowing what the outcome of a neuclear plant catastrophy. How can anyone in their 1/2 right mind think that it is OK to have neuclear power plants right here where we live, breathe, and eat from. Just one Earthquake, terrorist attack, human error, or who knows what. And life as we know it could change drastically.
    How can anyone say that this is a risk worth taking. What about if we have a power grid failure nation wide say from a solar storm or something. I think that anyone who thinks that neuclear power is ok isn't in tune with what life would really be like here if there were a neuclear catastrophy.

    March 29, 2011 at 8:08 pm | Report abuse |
    • Sy2502

      You seem perfectly willing to take the risk of oil drilling, apparently, despite the Exxon Valdez AND the BP platform disasters, which were much worse ecologic disasters than Three Mile Island. You also seem perfectly willing to take all the pollution fossil fuels cause. And would you like me to get into how many wars have been fought for oil, how many dictators have been left in power to slaughter their own people because we depend on them for oil? Funny how double standard works!

      March 29, 2011 at 8:19 pm | Report abuse |
  10. Rob

    I hat republicans and whoever is causing our gas prices to go crazy.

    March 29, 2011 at 8:10 pm | Report abuse |
  11. happyhow

    Then you must hate the current administration who has put a stop to all off-shore drilling while other countries are drilling off our shore. The current energy czar stated that we, the people in the USA, should be paying the same amount for gas as europeans, $7.00 gallon. You haven't seen anything yet, waite until the current administration raises your taxes and continues to shove the health care system down your throat. My friend in Canada owns a business and because of taxes and health care he paids 69% of his income to the government. You think you hate republicans, waite until thie current administration gets through messing with our system of government. Lots of luck

    March 29, 2011 at 9:26 pm | Report abuse |
  12. Rob

    At least you can somewhat contain an oil leak, and somewhat clean it up. Let me see someone catch and clean up some radiation. Oil can wash off, How about you run through some radiation for me and we will see how many showers it takes to wash that off.

    March 29, 2011 at 9:29 pm | Report abuse |
  13. Rob

    I say to hell with the oil and the neuclear. Let's bring out some of the stuff they have in store. I'm sure they have some type of other energy available. But it is probably cheap and the big fat investors haven't figured out a way to be able to make as much money as they do with oil. So the general public will probably never see it. My son made a small motor that works with nothing but magnets, no battery, or electric of any kind needed. Notice how fast solar panel idea came and went so fast. They figured there wasn't enough money in them, you buy them, install them, and then pay nothing else for them for years to come. Not good for investors, they last too long. It is all about the money and how the rich can get richer, and our government caters to those people.

    March 29, 2011 at 9:39 pm | Report abuse |
  14. happyhow

    My last comment is as follows: Last year 42,636 people were killed in auto accidents in the USA. Over the last 30 years 1,260,000 people have died as a result of auto accidents in the USA. Over the last 30 years we have not had one death as a result of a nuclear power plant. I have work, inspecting nuclear power plants, for over 30 years and I have never ever been exposed to any dangerous radiation levels. I carry a device that measures the level of radiation with me while I work at all times. Nuclear power can be dangerous but nothing conpared to driving on the highways and we do that every day and don't think anything about it.

    March 29, 2011 at 10:07 pm | Report abuse |
  15. happyhow

    I forgot to add that the containment around a nuclear reactor is disigned to withstand the impact of a direct hit from a 747 jet lairplane.

    March 29, 2011 at 10:17 pm | Report abuse |
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