At 4 a.m. on the morning of March 28, 1979,
a combination of human and mechanical error led to the worst nuclear accident in U.S.
history, that in truth wasn’t all that bad. It happened at the Three Mile Island nuclear
power plant just outside Harrisburg, PA, and would drastically escalate public distrust
toward nuclear power literally overnight. In the end, the accident led to no deaths
and no injuries to plant workers or the nearby community. If you camped out at the plant at Three Mile
Island during the accident, you’d have received only an additional 80 millirems of exposure
to ionizing radiation during the duration of the accident. For reference, if you’ve ever had your spine
x-rayed, you’d have received about double that just during the few seconds of the x-ray. If you were around ten miles away from the
reactor during the accident, you’d have received about 8 millirems or about the equivalent
ionizing radiation of eating 800 bananas, which are naturally radioactive. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), The
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Energy, as well as other independent
groups conducted studies in the aftermath of the accident, and came to the conclusion
that for people living near the reactor the average person’s exposure to radiation was
negligible. It was stated that in spite of serious damage
to the reactor’s core, no adverse health effects to humans, animals or the environment
could be attributed to the accident at Three Mile Island. Needless to say, public reaction to the Three
Mile Island accident went extremely overboard from what the actual event warranted. This was largely due to misinformation in
the press; misunderstanding of ionizing radiation among the general public; and the fact that,
not 12 days before it happened, the movie The China Syndrome was released. The plot of the movie was how unsafe nuclear
reactors were with just about everyone in the movie but one of the main characters trying
to cover it up. The China Syndrome movie title’s concept
comes from the premise that if an American nuclear reactor core were to melt down, it
would melt through the center of the Earth to China. Getting around the fact that it is actually
roughly the Indian Ocean that is on the opposite side of the Earth from the U.S., not China,
and the obvious problems with the “melt through the Earth” premise, it couldn’t
have been a better timed movie as far as free advertisement through the press due to the
Three Mile Island incident. The movie was even nominated for several academy
awards, including best actress by Jane Fonda. So what happened to cause the accident? The short of it is: an unfortunate combination
of sticky valves, someone checking the gauges without their glasses on and a few bad calls
leading to a partial meltdown, which in turn led to the release of radioactive gases into
the atmosphere. The radiation leak wasn’t discovered until
March 30, and at that time local residents were advised not to leave their homes. There was uncertainty among experts if the
hydrogen bubble created by the core materials and the super-hot steam could cause further
meltdown or even perhaps a giant explosion. As a precautionary measure, Governor Thornburgh
stated, among other things, that: “Pregnant women and pre-school age children
leave the area within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility until further
notice.” His statement did not have the effect of avoiding
a panic as Thornburgh had hoped. A visit from President Jimmy Carter, a former
nuclear engineer who helped dismantle a damaged nuclear reactor while serving in the Navy,
did help a little more, but could not quell the wider distrust of nuclear power in the
U.S. that occurred directly after, despite nuclear power then, as now, being one of the
most environmentally friendly forms of electricity production. For reference, according to a paper published
by the Clean Air Task Force, approximately 24,000 people in the U.S. alone each year
die from emissions from coal power plants. Further, coal power plants release approximately
100 times as much ionizing radiation per year as an equivalent (in terms of output in wattage)
nuclear power plant… that’s not even getting into the carbon emissions.