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30 Years Ago at TMI and Today

3mile1 The Three Mile Island accident happened on March 28, 1979, 30 years ago. If you were around then, seeing it on TV on top of having just seen the popular suspense movie The China Syndrome, released two weeks before that day, you may well have panicked. Certainly, you imagined, Pennsylvania would become America’s self-inflicted Hiroshima; at the very least, the death toll would be huge on the scene and grow horrific as cancer overtook survivors.

There was no internet – the most capable home computer was the Apple ][ - CNN was in its infancy, and you had a callous on your index finger from dialing and redialing your relative in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia and not getting through. So television was the way to learn about TMI. The three networks ran with it all day and night, interrupting soap operas and sitcoms alike.

The style of coverage, the look of the photography, with reporters jittery about radiation exposure, their voices cracking against the background of those awful, staring towers - the stark photographs in the newspapers that afternoon, like the one above – the culture almost seemed to demand an American nuclear holocaust. And didn’t get it, because it wasn’t there to be had. It never was.

But word was out and everyone knew it: our friend the atom had it in for us.


The New York Post had the headline: “Nuke Cloud Spreading.” Another headline: “Hydrogen Explosion Threat Looms.” See here for a montage of voices and images from that time, although the image is degraded black-and-white.

What the TMI and NRC people said on that day, as heard on the video, so level and calm and reassuring, surely they were lying, like the liars in The China Syndrome, to save their own skins.

But what they said was true – then – in 1979.


There were no deaths and no cancer risk, and no “nuke cloud” floated out over New Jersey. Pennsylvania still turns out funnel cakes and cheese steak.

And Three Mile Island still makes electricity.

You can read about TMI and its impact here.



The coffee mug handed out Wednesday to reporters from as far away as Germany read "Three Mile Island: Clean, Safe, Reliable."

That's the message organizers wanted to give for media day at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. The event came two weeks shy of the 30th anniversary of America's worst nuclear accident.

Because, of course, the accident happened at Unit 2. Unit 1, meanwhile, stayed open and has produced electricity since then – and will continue to, as an extension will likely be granted, for at least the next 20 years.

Since late 2007, 17 companies have proposed building 26 plants, including one in Luzerne County, according to Tom Kauffman, media relations manager for the Nuclear Energy Institute.

Concerns about global warming and energy demands have driven the renewed interest in nuclear power, Kauffman said.

And here’s an odd paragraph:

Kauffman said he is confident that four to eight new plants will be operating by 2018, and more will follow, even though President Barack Obama is not as ardent a supporter of new nuclear power plants as is Sen. John McCain, Obama's Republican opponent in the presidential race.

Well, no, Obama was not as ardent as McCain – feels as though our writer covered the campaign and can’t quite shake it out of her system.


So, TMI made cups to give out and had presentations, NEI was there, some reporters came over. Anyone we missed?

Eric Epstein, chair of Three Mile Island Alert (TMIA), a group that advocates for alternatives to nuclear power before the state Public Utility Commission and other governmental bodies, said this technology’s proponents understate its costs.

Actually, Mr. Epstein was at a panel discussion on the 30th anniversary in Harrisburg. He had all his arguments down pat, as we’d expect, although some of them had a faint glint of the disco ball about them.

He said any supposition that nuclear-energy production will wean America off of foreign oil is particularly a “canard” because oil mainly fuels transport while nuclear energy powers grounded facilities.

“Nobody puts uranium in his car,” he said.

We’d be surprise if anyone argued for this outside of Doc Brown. What they might argue for, instead, are electric cars, which would benefit from a lot more electricity being generated. That’s where nuclear energy might come in – here- in the 21st century.


Since the 30th anniversary is still two weeks out, we’ll keep an eye open for other keystone doings and let you know about them here.

From a Washington Post retrospective, Three Mile Island: 20 Years Later, done, logically enough, in 1999. See here for more striking photos of that day now 30 years ago.


Anonymous said…
I was working nights in the TMI-1 control room for the 20th anniversary in 1999. The weather was rough - raining a bitter cold. Sometime in the early morning we received a call from security. A few (less than 12) protesters had gathered at the front gate as plant management had anticipated and discussed during our normal beginning of shift turnover brief.

There is (or at least was) a blue line painted across the entrance. One side of the line is public property (the road - route 441), the other side belonged to GPU Nuclear (the utility who operated the plant prior to AmerGen and now Exelon). Anyone stepping over the blue line without permission was subject to arrest.

At a predetermined time (the time credited to the beginning of the accident), one or two protesters crossed the line, immediately surrendered to police and were ceremoniously arrested.

Meanwhile, Unit-1 purred safely along at 100% as it had done for hundreds of days in a row since emerging from a refuelling outage in the autumn of 1997.
Anonymous said…
Had the hydrogen bubble in containment ignited -- and for days no one was sure that it would not -- this would be a very different discussion.
Finrod said…
"Had the hydrogen bubble in containment ignited -- and for days no one was sure that it would not -- this would be a very different discussion."

Why? What would have happened? Are you claiming that the containment dome would have ruptured?
Phil said…
The absolute worst thing about the TMI accident from a practical perspective was that it was a brand spanking new plant. The electric ratepayers of the area only got electricity out of it for a few months before it melted down. All that money to build that plant and they didn't even get hardly any electricity out of the darned thing!
GRLCowan said…
'Finrod': "Are you claiming that --"

'Finrod' seems to be hoping that an anonymous poster will back down rather than utter a direct lie.

I'm not sure that's such a good bet, with anonymous posters, or indeed nymous one. But in any case, even if it were a good bet, the anon isn't reluctant to use your fingers to utter the desired lie on his behalf.

Think meme-propagation. Don't let the bad ones do it.

Here, under the heading HYDROGEN BUBBLE, is a good-looking discussion of the unperturbed nature of the containment when the hydrogen did, in fact, ignite.

(How fire can be domesticated)

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