The Three Mile Island Disaster, Revisited

Jacki Lyden marks the 30-year anniversary of the accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island nuclear power plant with a look back at NPR's coverage.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

Flashback now to 1979 on this very program.

NOAH ADAMS: All of this has left us uncertain, unsettled that no one truth or answer is at hand. We've been left to decide which set of experts to believe, and the experts from the federal government and private utilities face decisions they have never before had to make.

LYDEN: NPR's Noah Adams, talking about the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. That drama began 30 years ago today. The country and this network were riveted for days.

Unidentified Woman #1: Radiation has been detected as far as a mile away from a nuclear power plant that was shut down this morning due to an accident…

Unidentified Man #1: …that spokesmen in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission have called one of the most serious nuclear industry accidents to date.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm saying that we don't have any China Syndrome possibility with these events that occurred at Three Mile Island over the past two days.

Unidentified Woman #2: What are you doing for yourself at this hour?

Unidentified Woman #3: Trying to stay in as much as possible.

Unidentified Man #3: I'm going up to my mom's house right now, Susquehanna. Then there, we might go to New Jersey.

Unidentified Man #4: I live approximately four miles away from there, and I definitely do not like it.

Unidentified Woman #4: What do you think should be done?

Unidentified Man #4: Close it down completely.

Unidentified Man #5: And if milk in this region should be contaminated, Hershey Chocolate could become something of an historic relic, a victim of the nuclear age.

Unidentified Woman #5: You know what evacuation is?

Unidentified Child: That everybody has to go.

Unidentified Woman #5: Do you know why?

Unidentified Child: Because of radioactivity, and on the radio, the news people said that Hummelstown is going to blow up.

LYDEN: Of course, no towns blew up, no one died, no injuries, and Hershey's Chocolate continues to crown ice cream sundaes across America.

Patrick Moore was an early leader of Greenpeace and an opponent then of all things nuclear, but since he left the group in 1986, he's become a spokesman for the nuclear industry. These days, he argues that Three Mile Island was actually a success.

Mr. PATRICK MOORE (Former Director, Greenpeace International): It was like you're driving down the road in your car, and your engine blows up, and you pull over to the side safely, and no one is hurt. I would say that would be a successful handling of that kind of accident, but it was also a success in the sense that it was a huge wake-up call for the nuclear industry.

LYDEN: Peter Bradford heard that call. He was a member of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission when Three Mile Island happened. Today, he says the industry still faces big challenges. Nuclear plants are hugely expensive, and there are still safety concerns. He points to an incident in 2002 at Ohio's Davis-Besse nuclear reactor that nearly turned into another Three Mile Island.

Mr. PETER BRADFORD (Former Member, Nuclear Regulatory Commission): The difficulty with nuclear power, from a safety standpoint, isn't that there is a major danger of a serious accident at any one plant in any one year, it's that the repercussions of any accident, anywhere, any time, are so large.

LYDEN: Three Mile Island helped turn public sentiment strongly against nuclear power. In fact, construction has not begun on a single nuclear plant in this country in the last 30 years.

Now, the public's reaction is a little harder to gauge. Three years ago, Gallup asked how many people would support building a nuclear power plant in their area, and 55 percent were opposed.

But in the latest Gallup survey, 59 percent of Americans supported nuclear power as a way to provide electricity for the United States.

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