Meltdown : Throughline In the early hours of March 28, 1979, a system malfunction began what would become the worst nuclear accident in American history. What ensued punctured the public's belief in the safety of nuclear energy and became an awful study in the consequences of communication breakdown during a crisis. This week, the fallout of who and what to trust when a catastrophic event occurs.
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Meltdown

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Meltdown

Meltdown

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RUND ABDELFATAH, HOST:

Hey. Before we get into the show, we want to thank you for listening to THROUGHLINE. And we'd like to better understand who is listening and how you're using podcasts. So if you have a few minutes, please help us out by completing a short anonymous survey at npr.org/podcastsurvey - one word. It takes less than 10 minutes and really helps support the show. That's npr.org/podcastsurvey.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RAMTIN ARABLOUEI, HOST:

On March 16, 1979, a new movie debuted in theaters across the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE TRAILER, "THE CHINA SYNDROME")

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: "The China Syndrome" - it's about people, people who lie and people faced with the agony of telling the truth.

ARABLOUEI: The phrase China Syndrome describes a totally impossible yet terrifying doomsday scenario where a reactor at a nuclear power plant melts down and, with nothing to stop it, burns through the Earth, all the way from the U.S. to China. OK, back to the movie.

NATASHA ZARETSKY: So "The China Syndrome" portrays a serious nuclear accident at a reactor in Ventana, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CHINA SYNDROME")

JACK LEMMON: (As Jack Godell) This is Jack Godell. We have a serious condition. You get everyone into safety areas...

ARABLOUEI: Which nearly leads to a meltdown at the plant.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CHINA SYNDROME")

LEMMON: (As Jack Godell) Now, what the hell happened to the high-pressure cooler injector?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) (Unintelligible) For maintenance, Jack.

ZARETSKY: And then the efforts of investigative journalists to uncover what actually happened.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CHINA SYNDROME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Please, please let me ask a question.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Ted, we have to go now.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Mr. Gibson, if there's nothing to hide, let him speak.

ZARETSKY: Going kind of up against...

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CHINA SYNDROME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) There was a vibration.

ZARETSKY: ...The owners of the reactor who are portrayed as villainous and as willing to cover up the accident, sort of in order to protect their own bottom line.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE CHINA SYNDROME")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #5: (As character) Don't know that accident is the right word.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #6: (As character) Accident is the right word.

ABDELFATAH: The owners of the nuclear power plant refused to acknowledge any wrongdoing, claiming the plant poses no danger.

ARABLOUEI: But the reporters are there to slowly unravel their lies.

ABDELFATAH: And at one point in the movie, a physics professor tells a reporter that, in fact, an explosion at the plant could render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: "The China Syndrome" was a hit. It made millions at the box office, was nominated for four Oscars. And some would later say it predicted the future.

ZARETSKY: This film, in a kind of uncanny coincidence, came out 12 days before the accident at Three Mile Island.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: A government official said that a breakdown in an atomic power plant in Pennsylvania today is probably the worst nuclear reactor accident to date.

ZARETSKY: It was such a kind of bizarre life-imitating-art moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

ANDREA MITCHELL: The worst nuclear accident in U.S. history, sparking health concerns that linger 40 years later.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Forty years after the nation held its breath over the near meltdown of this Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, many of the circumstances surrounding the accident remain cloaked in mystery.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: And that's what was so frustrating - we had this feeling that we were not getting the facts.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I don't think anybody really knew how dangerous it was.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: It was just panic. It was fear. It was all these emotions wrapped up into one.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR...

ARABLOUEI: Where we go back in time...

ABDELFATAH: To understand the present.

Hey. I'm Rund Abdelfatah.

ARABLOUEI: I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: And on this episode, confusion and chaos at Three Mile Island.

ARABLOUEI: As we continue to navigate our new reality, the reality of COVID-19, we're all trying to figure out what information is reliable and who to believe.

ABDELFATAH: After all, there isn't just one source of definitive guidance on anything. Is 6 feet enough distance? Do we have to douse all our groceries with disinfectant? How long should self-isolation and social distancing go on? Is there enough testing? Which medicines are proving useful in the fight against the virus?

ARABLOUEI: In times of crisis, reliable information is especially important. It can serve as an antidote to fear, confusion, anger - emotions heightened by uncertainty. It can help people assess how much danger they are or aren't in. And it can help establish trust between the public and the authorities.

ABDELFATAH: That got us thinking about another time in U.S. history when the country was in crisis mode. In 1979, after an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa. Then, like now, the deadly potential of an invisible force dominated the headlines.

ARABLOUEI: Would the plant explode? When was it safe to go out? How much radiation was released? Could you get sick from the water? Some of those questions remain to this day. Nuclear radiation is a threat that can linger for years and years, silently wreaking havoc, so the fear and the doubt also linger.

ABDELFATAH: Many people harbor strong fears about nuclear energy, even as others argue that nuclear energy can and should help power our future in the face of climate change.

ARABLOUEI: But what this story's about is how nuclear technology morphed from a weapon of war to a thriving private industry and the moment when disaster struck and the public's trust was broken.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVID MARKIMER: Hello. This is David Markimer calling from Seattle, Wash., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE on NPR. Keep up the great work. I love it when you fill in the historical gaps. Thanks.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Part 1 - The Atom.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ABDELFATAH: On August 6, 1945, the United States deployed the most powerful weapon the world had ever seen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HARRY S TRUMAN: A short time ago, an American airplane dropped one bomb on Hiroshima and destroyed its usefulness to the enemy. That bomb has more power than 20,000 tons of TNT. The Japanese began the war from the air at Pearl Harbor. They have been repaid many fold.

ABDELFATAH: The bomb was codenamed Little Boy. And according to the rationale of the United States high command, it was a tool used to effectively end World War II. Three days later, the U.S. military dropped another bomb on another Japanese city, Nagasaki.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMAN: It is an atomic bomb. It is a harnessing of the basic power of the universe. The force from which the sun draws its power has been loosed against those who brought war to the Far East. We have spent more than $2 billion on the greatest scientific gamble in history - and we have won.

ARABLOUEI: Together, both bombs killed over 100,000 people, most of them within seconds. In some cases, the only evidence that remained were their shadows on the concrete.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

J ROBERT OPPENHEIMER: We knew the world would not be the same. Two people laughed. A few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita - now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds. I suppose we all thought that one way or another.

ARABLOUEI: That was J. Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the secret research effort to create the atomic bomb called the Manhattan Project. He was describing the reactions of his colleagues after their first test of the atomic bomb. He was tortured by the fact that he had helped use the peak of human scientific knowledge to create a godlike destructive power.

ABDELFATAH: In reality, most Americans knew nothing of the Manhattan Project or anything, really, about nuclear fission. All they knew was that two massive bombs had brought victory.

SARAH ROBEY: At least at first, there wasn't a huge visual lexicon that the average person had about what atomic destruction looked like.

ABDELFATAH: This is Sarah Robey.

ROBEY: I am an assistant professor in the history of energy at Idaho State University, and I am a nuclear historian.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Japanese).

ABDELFATAH: Evidence of what happened began to trickle out of Japan.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Speaking Japanese).

ROBEY: Over the next few weeks and months, photographs did come out of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) Can we forget that flash? Suddenly, 30,000 in the streets disappeared.

ROBEY: But they were mediated by the American government pretty heavily.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) In the crushed depths of the darkness, the shrieks of 50,000 died out.

ROBEY: You would see destroyed buildings and perhaps some aerial shots of, you know, complete decimation within a certain perimeter.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) When the swirling yellow smoke thinned, buildings split. Bridges collapsed. Packed trains rested singed in a shoreless accumulation of rubble and embers - Hiroshima.

ROBEY: But for a long time, there was a conscious effort to keep images away from the press that led to the direct association with the human costs of those bombings.

(SOUNDBITE OF POEM)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: (Through interpreter) With skin hanging down like rags, hands on chests, stamping on crumbled brain matter, burnt clothing covering hips. Toge Sankichi.

ABDELFATAH: Ultimately, the government didn't succeed in cutting that association completely.

ROBEY: The average public understood that the nature of war had changed. And they developed a very tight correlation between anything nuclear - except they were mostly saying atomic at the time. But atomic weapons and atomic science or atomic energy - there was always this overtone of like, OK, the war is over. But what have we gotten ourselves into in the long run? So it's hard to pinpoint, you know, a universal or monolithic public reaction to the dawn of the atomic age. But you know, I think the best we can say is that it was profoundly mixed.

ARABLOUEI: The discovery of nuclear fission in the early 20th century was revolutionary. Scientists had figured out how to manipulate an atom, one of the most elemental things in nature. And with that...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: The atomic age was born. There is no denying that since that moment, the shadow of the atom bomb has been across all our lives.

ABDELFATAH: This is from a promotional film about the benefits of nuclear energy produced by General Electric. It reflected the attempt to reframe atomic science in the minds of the American public. GE, along with a host of other experts, were preparing people for a future where nuclear reactors could power the country.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: Because here, in fact, is the answer to a dream as old as man himself - a giant of limitless power at man's command. And where was it science found that giant? In the atom. Meanwhile, good...

ROBEY: You know, the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki gave an overwhelmingly negative slant to this whole kind of scientific category. But you see efforts on the part of federal officials, educators, other public intellectuals in the late '40s and '50s saying, hey, you know, this is a force that could be the end of us. But if we're responsible, we can turn this into something that will benefit society or benefit the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: An atomic energy power plant has already proved feasible. The future supplying of electric power to entire cities is far from impossible. While nuclear...

ROBEY: Electricity produced by nuclear energy would be, quote-unquote, "too cheap to meter" - right? - which became a catchphrase in the 1950s as a way to promote the almost utopian vision of the benefits of nuclear energy.

ABDELFATAH: But it wasn't just companies and experts pushing this new narrative. It was also the president of the United States, former general and war hero Dwight D. Eisenhower.

(SOUNBDITE OF SPEECH)

DWIGHT D EISENHOWER: Members of the General Assembly, when Secretary-General Hammarskjold's invitation...

ROBEY: So very early in Eisenhower's presidency, he went before the United Nations in New York and gave what became known as the "Atoms for Peace" speech, where he outlined a vision of the nuclear future for the world.

(SOUNBDITE OF SPEECH)

EISENHOWER: This greatest of destructive forces can be developed into a great boon for the benefit of all mankind.

ROBEY: Eisenhower is framing nuclear science and the peaceful uses of nuclear science as something that can heal the world.

(SOUNBDITE OF SPEECH)

EISENHOWER: The United States knows that peaceful power from atomic energy is no dream of the future. That capability, already proved, is here - now, today.

ROBEY: It's very much about public sentiment, and it's about signaling to both Cold War allies and Cold War enemies that the United States is not just invested in nuclear weapons proliferation.

(SOUNBDITE OF SPEECH)

EISENHOWER: The United States pledges before you - and therefore before the world - its determination to help solve the fearful atomic dilemma, to devote its entire heart and mind to find the way by which the miraculous inventiveness of man shall not be dedicated to his death but consecrated to his life.

(APPLAUSE)

ROBEY: But this is still with a backdrop of massive arms buildup throughout the course of the 1950s on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

ABDELFATAH: And while Eisenhower was out giving speeches about the peaceful potential of nuclear power, the U.S. was building bigger and scarier nuclear weapons.

ROBEY: So what he's saying at the U.N. and what's going on you know in the American military and the American Atomic Energy Commission - not always totally in line there.

ARABLOUEI: Even so, his speech seemed to work from a public relations perspective.

ROBEY: On the whole, Eisenhower's speech was received pretty well - or at least as far as I can tell, you know, when you look at newspaper accounts and editorials. And you know, there are public opinion polls from this era. People were willing and kind of, I would say, sometimes almost eager to consider the peaceful and, you know, maybe utopian vision of the atomic age.

ARABLOUEI: And within a year of the "Atoms for Peace" speech, Congress passed a bill that gave private industry more access to nuclear technology.

ROBEY: And what that did is it paved the way for private companies and utilities to have access to the expertise and, you know, even just the fuel needed to put a nuclear reactor on the grid, more or less.

ABDELFATAH: And the federal government didn't just open up the pathway to linking nuclear power to the electric grid. They actually kind of got into the nuclear power game.

ROBEY: One of the things that they did was they basically fast-forwarded a reactor development site, set up this reactor on the grid to demonstrate that it could be done - but at great expense and effort on the part of the federal government.

ABDELFATAH: That first commercial reactor became operational in 1957. It was happening. Electricity from nuclear power was about to be a reality in the United States.

ZARETSKY: And by the 1960s, new power plants are being licensed at a pretty steady clip.

ABDELFATAH: This is Natasha Zaretsky.

ZARETSKY: I'm a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

ABDELFATAH: According to Natasha, unlike other industrial sites like toxic waste dumps, for example, which were often placed near poor communities and communities of color, nuclear power plants didn't follow that pattern. They were just as likely to be placed near white middle-class communities. And if members of those communities had questions about their own safety living near a nuclear reactor, they were pretty much told, meh, nothing to worry about.

ZARETSKY: There was just a great deal of confidence that you could create these technologies that were essentially accident-proof and designed so well that it wasn't that they could remove the possibility of human error but that they could safeguard against any one human error creating the conditions for a really serious accident.

ROBEY: The Atomic Energy Commission really downplayed the potential health effects of nuclear fallout.

ABDELFATAH: But concerns about the safety of these facilities were increasing.

ZARETSKY: You had growing worries that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which is the regulatory body that oversaw the licensing of new plants, was overstating the safety of nuclear reactors. And by the 1970s, you have anti-reactor activists asking about radiation emission from plants.

ROBEY: The kinds of arguments that they would use against new reactors would often operate in this gray area between nuclear weapons and nuclear power. You'll see protesters that say no nukes. They're very intentionally calling upon the destructive side of nuclear energy.

ZARETSKY: The earliest associations between atomic reactors and atomic weapons never completely disappears.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: There was tension and mistrust between these two sides. The burgeoning nuclear industry, who thought they were turning a technology associated with destruction into something positive, and the anti-reactor movement, who raised questions about the actual safety of the technology. Both continued to grow in the 1970s. But warnings weren't just coming from the outside.

ZARETSKY: You do have nuclear engineers who see themselves as whistleblowers, who are coming forward and saying, you know, there are complexities built into these systems that can create the conditions for really serious accidents.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

CARRIE MERRILL: Hi. My name is Carrie Merrill (ph) from Phoenix, Ariz. You're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Part 2 - The Accident.

KAREN GOLDSTEEN: From my perspective, we were just living our lives - you know, taking the kids to school, cooking, cleaning, taking them, you know? There was no sense of danger at all.

ABDELFATAH: This is Karen Goldsteen. She and her husband, Raymond Goldsteen, moved to a small town near Harrisburg, Pa., in the mid-1970s, very close to Three Mile Island.

RAYMOND GOLDSTEEN: Going back to Harrisburg was like going back in another time period - another time where things were socially, culturally way different or, you might say, not as progressive.

ABDELFATAH: They'd ended up there after Raymond got a job teaching at a local university.

K GOLDSTEEN: And he was starting to think about what he was going to do his dissertation on.

ABDELFATAH: He knew it would have something to do with public health. But beyond that, he was stumped.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

K GOLDSTEEN: I was a stay-at-home mom at that point. I had two children - a 9-year-old boy and a 4-year-old boy - and I was pregnant at the time.

ARABLOUEI: Their memories of that time and place are pretty idyllic. Karen described rolling fields and lush farmland.

K GOLDSTEEN: It's very beautiful there in the spring when all the crops start to pop up, and it has a wonderful smell. And the Susquehanna River flows through that area, which is really a beautiful river that heads down into the Chesapeake Bay.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ARABLOUEI: But there was one unavoidable eyesore right in the middle of all of that beauty.

K GOLDSTEEN: Our older son played baseball in a field, and the towers loomed over it. But everybody just went to the field, drove up to the field and watched the games, you know, in the shadow of the cooling towers.

ROBEY: Those are the kind of big, concrete towers that have sort of the parabolic, arced sides.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

DAN CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) It's the job of tomorrow, today. Let us choose an electrifying career in - line?

ROBEY: Perhaps made most famous by "The Simpsons."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE SIMPSONS")

HARRY SHEARER: (As Mr. Burns) Nuclear power.

CASTELLANETA: (As Homer Simpson) Nuclear power.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

R GOLDSTEEN: I think at that time, the power plant was not on people's minds. Many of the people worked at the plant. It was a well-paying job. We were promised this was safe. We believed them that this was safe. We will go about our lives, and we will even work in your plant. And we think it's a good opportunity and a good environment.

K GOLDSTEEN: That's how it was before.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINES BUZZING)

ZARETSKY: The accident started in the early morning hours of Wednesday, March 28, 1979. It was what people in the industry call a loss of coolant accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBEY: The biggest safety concern in any nuclear power plant is keeping the temperature at the level you want it to be at.

ABDELFATAH: The temperature is crucial because there's a danger of overheating.

ROBEY: And on the first day of the Three Mile Island accident...

ABDELFATAH: A small mechanical failure caused the coolant to overheat. The reactor automatically shut down, which should have fixed the problem because as the pressure was rising, the relief valve opened to release the coolant. But it got stuck and didn't close again.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALARM SOUNDING)

ROBEY: There was also a malfunction in terms of the alert system.

ABDELFATAH: It was a failure of design. There was no explicit instrument to alert operators that the valve failed to close, which meant the operators didn't realize the valve was stuck. They knew there was a problem but not what it was.

ZARETSKY: The control room - like, the panels literally went crazy with different alerts and noises, and the operators found themselves completely overwhelmed.

ROBEY: And so while the technicians initially reacted correctly, their equipment was giving them bad information.

ABDELFATAH: Bad information - they couldn't get a read on what was actually going on inside the reactor, which led to some unintended missteps.

ROBEY: And what they ended up doing is exacerbating the coolant loss problem.

ZARETSKY: So it created what became called a partial meltdown.

ROBEY: A meltdown is when temperatures get out of control.

ABDELFATAH: Damaging the core and causing more and more parts of the reactor to go haywire.

(SOUNDBITE OF MACHINES BUZZING)

ABDELFATAH: And by around 11:00 a.m....

ROBEY: There was a very volatile situation going on in the building that encloses the reactor.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #3: An accident in the water-cooling system at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Harrisburg, Pa., forced the company to call a general emergency and shut down...

R GOLDSTEEN: I found it out on a newscast about the accident.

K GOLDSTEEN: I found out - I believe this is how it happened. I had a friend who had a friend whose husband worked at the plant, and I know I spoke to her that morning. And she said something had happened.

R GOLDSTEEN: it was not of major importance. It was just a minor event.

K GOLDSTEEN: We certainly didn't know any details. We didn't know there was confusion in the plant about what was happening and how to control it. We didn't know any of that the first day.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ROBEY: Over the next couple of hours, the NRC was on the scene. The utility operators had been in conversation then with...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DICK THORNBURGH: Everything is under control.

ROBEY: ...The governor of Pennsylvania.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THORNBURGH: There is and was no danger to public health and safety. There was a small release of radiation to the environment. All safety equipment functioned properly.

ROBEY: As well as officials in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WILLIAM SCRANTON: We are taking more tests. And at this point, we believe there is still no danger to the public health.

ROBEY: And by the end of the day on the first day, you know, the nightly news was reporting - OK, there was an accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #4: Frank, it was an accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #5: It happened at the No. 2 generator about 4 o'clock this morning...

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #6: ...Probably the worst nuclear reactor accident to date.

ROBEY: But aside from some technicians who might have been exposed to radiation...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #7: Workers in their cars were checked and rechecked for radiation. Some was found.

ROBEY: ...We think everything is OK. What was unclear was whether or not the situation was going to deteriorate further.

R GOLDSTEEN: Then I start hearing that people who worked at the plant said it's much more serious than you're being told.

ARABLOUEI: Over the next couple of days, information about what was happening at the plant and what risks that posed began to get more and more...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: We do have a new development. It is not clear yet the extent of this development.

ARABLOUEI: ...Confusing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #8: Metropolitan Edison has given you and us conflicting information.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #9: It's more complex than the company first led us to believe.

ABDELFATAH: There was talk of a hydrogen bubble forming inside the reactor...

ZARETSKY: And that raised fears of a possible explosion.

ABDELFATAH: ...Which is a terrifying possibility. And the different sources of information seemed unsure about the information they were providing, including the utility company, Metropolitan Edison...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: Excuse me. You're not answering the question. The question is, are there any safety defects at this plant?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Not to the best of my knowledge.

ARABLOUEI: ...And politicians, like the governor of Pennsylvania Dick Thornburgh.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

THORNBURGH: And all this information is coming in. Our people are giving us the information that I'm giving you.

ABDELFATAH: There was even debate about using the word accident.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #9: We have absolutely no question about the safety of nuclear plants as a result of this mishap. We do not refer to it as a nuclear accident...

ARABLOUEI: Meanwhile, the media continued to amplify the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #10: Good evening. The news tonight is not encouraging. To sum it up in a word, it is still confusing from Harrisburg. To bring you up...

ZARETSKY: I think the local media at the time of the accident was really quite good and successful at staying focused on the task of getting practical information into the hands of people who lived near the plant. But there were many people at the time who felt that the coverage of the accident became increasingly alarmist the further away that you were.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #11: The nation and much of the world has been watching as this nuclear nightmare unfolds in this plant on the Susquehanna River.

ZARETSKY: So there was news coverage as far away as Germany that had left the impression that, you know, the state of Pennsylvania had basically been wiped off the map.

K GOLDSTEEN: What happened with us was that our sister-in-law, who was living in the Washington suburbs, called us and said, Karen, you have to get out of there. It's really bad. It's really dangerous. And you know, that was the first we knew that something had happened there that might be, you know, a serious threat to everyone in the area, not just the people at the plant.

ZARETSKY: The people who lived near the plant found themselves in a really frustrating situation of trying to gather information kind of on the fly.

K GOLDSTEEN: Yeah, you didn't know who to believe.

ROBEY: There was incomplete messaging. The situation was changing hour by hour at times, and so the messages coming from the governor were changing hour by hour.

ZARETSKY: You know, you have these political authorities on one hand and technological authorities on the other. And Thornburgh himself knew very, very little about the workings of nuclear energy, so he's having to absorb information and then trying to keep the public apprised of what's going on.

ABDELFATAH: Think about that for a second. Under the best conditions, nuclear science isn't exactly easy to wrap your head around. And in this situation, even if you could follow the science, you might still have no idea what was going on because the experts themselves...

ZARETSKY: Can't actually get in to see what's happening. You can use instrumentation to gauge radiation levels and temperatures, but no one could actually go inside the reactor to assess the level of damage.

ROBEY: So a lot of what even the most expert experts were concluding about what was going on in the reactor was based on best guesses.

ZARETSKY: And there's a quote even at the time of someone from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission saying, it's like we're a bunch of blind men in a room kind of leading each other around.

ROBEY: The unknown and the unknowables in all of this and the human capacity to kind of fill in the blanks with either good or flawed information or understanding - I mean, it makes a lot of sense in this moment.

ARABLOUEI: People wanted answers, and they began to demand them.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

ZARETSKY: They're flooding the governor's office with calls. They're calling local radio stations and local media to try to simply get the most basic information.

ARABLOUEI: The NRC continued to say that there was no serious danger, but Governor Thornburgh wasn't as sure. And by day three, he decided to issue an advisory for pregnant women and young children to evacuate the area.

R GOLDSTEEN: But it was unclear how they assessed the danger or thought about the danger.

K GOLDSTEEN: Our younger son was a preschooler and I was pregnant. You know, you didn't want to take a chance. And so things escalated quickly.

R GOLDSTEEN: My immediate concern was to get Karen out of the town.

K GOLDSTEEN: I was trying to hurry him along. And I was saying, we have to get out of here. We have to leave.

R GOLDSTEEN: She probably thought I was pretty reluctant.

K GOLDSTEEN: You know, he was dragging his feet because he had already developed a questionnaire and was thinking about how we had to get information right away.

ABDELFATAH: In this terrifying moment, amid all this confusion, Raymond, who - remember - was a Ph.D. student in public health, had stumbled upon his dissertation topic.

R GOLDSTEEN: But I'm doing my best to act as good as I could.

ABDELFATAH: They packed up their car, locked up their home and left.

K GOLDSTEEN: My husband drove us all to Washington. And we stayed with relatives, which I think so many people did.

ABDELFATAH: But Karen was haunted by a thought.

K GOLDSTEEN: You know, would we ever be able to go back? Would we ever be able to get our things - because we just left with a few things - you know, like refugees do - or would this be something that would completely make this area where we lived before uninhabitable and unapproachable - unlivable?

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ARABLOUEI: Five days after the accident, then-President Jimmy Carter visited Three Mile Island. By that point, nearly 100,000 people had evacuated the area. For many, including the mayor of nearby Middletown, Pa., the president's visit signaled that the worst had passed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #10: We felt that the president of the United States is not going to come if it's not safe. And when he came, it really was a relief, as far as the people were concerned.

ROBEY: Once the crisis calmed down by, you know, day four, five or six, you know, there was a sigh of relief and I think even an acknowledgement at the time that this could have been a lot worse.

ZARETSKY: The whole accident itself I think lasted about a total of 12 days as the people who worked at the plant, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and officials in Pennsylvania were trying to kind of gauge and make sense of what was going on inside the reactor core but also how much radiation was leaking from the plant.

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ABDELFATAH: But this isn't where the story ends because without a clear sense of what happened, people in the community had no idea what the consequences might be for them and what the future might hold. Would they have higher rates of cancer? Was the water safe? Were their children at risk?

ARABLOUEI: And for people like Karen and Raymond Goldsteen who had left, the question was, should they even go back?

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LADONNA KANAGIE: Hi. This is LaDonna Kanagie (ph) and I'm from Chico, Calif., and you're listening to THROUGHLINE from NPR. And I love this show.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Part 3 - The Aftermath.

ARABLOUEI: Just one night after they arrived in Washington, D.C., Raymond was already itching to get back to Three Mile Island.

K GOLDSTEEN: My husband saw it much differently than I did. I saw it just in terms of the threat to our family. He saw it as not only a threat to our family but also as something that must be investigated (laughter). And...

ARABLOUEI: He wanted to build a public health study around the psychological effects of what had happened at Three Mile Island. And he wasted no time.

R GOLDSTEEN: My decision to go back immediately - or as fast as I could - was probably not a sound decision.

K GOLDSTEEN: We've been married for 50 years (laughter). I can tell you - I mean, he's just a very curious and determined person. And I don't know what is that driving force that he has, but he was driven to understand.

R GOLDSTEEN: My wife, correctly, thought that was not a good decision - emotional, driven, but not based upon - if you were of rational mind, you probably wouldn't go back.

ABDELFATAH: Raymond drove back to Three Mile Island and got to work.

R GOLDSTEEN: I was unfunded. I had no money, which, of course, my wife will tell you how crazy that was. But you couldn't wait six months or a year or two years to find the funding to do it 'cause disaster research requires you to get out there very quickly and get your instruments out there to measure what was going on.

ABDELFATAH: He started surveying the area, gathering data. And after a couple of weeks, he was reunited with Karen. They went back to their home where they had left all of their things, and life went on. But nothing was the same, and the fears and doubts remained. Were Karen and the baby she was carrying at risk? Could their children develop health issues down the line from the radiation? They couldn't dwell on those scary thoughts. So instead, they focused on their kids and the research.

ARABLOUEI: At a certain point, the federal government decided it also wanted to conduct a study of what had happened, so it established a presidential commission. And since Raymond was already out in the field, his work became part of that study.

R GOLDSTEEN: I forget exactly how much our grant was. But basically, it was a significant amount of money that the federal government gave for the project. And we were able to now, at this point, you know, expand.

ABDELFATAH: Raymond hired a staff of around 25 people, and Karen also got involved, helping to interview residents within a 20-mile radius of the plant.

R GOLDSTEEN: We did over a thousand interviews.

ABDELFATAH: They were especially interested in how pregnant women and children were affected.

R GOLDSTEEN: We also - the president's commission asked us to do a study on the workers at the nuclear power plant, which we conducted for them, to find out, how much distress did it cause the people and what were the factors associated with this distress?

ARABLOUEI: The federal and state governments conducted a series of studies looking at radiation levels and health impacts. The results should have been good news for the community.

ZARETSKY: Findings were consistently reassuring that no - that the amounts of radiation that had been emitted from the plant at the time of the accident never really were high enough to threaten public health.

ARABLOUEI: But many people were skeptical of those findings, not knowing who or what to believe and instead filled in the gaps on their own.

ZARETSKY: There were a lot of rumors swirling around because it was a community that was on high alert. You know, if there was a miscarriage, there was a lot of speculation that it could be traced to the accident. Or you know, there were local community members who were going out and doing what is called popular epidemiology, where they were trying to identify cancer clusters in the community - their own kind of forms of information-gathering because they didn't trust the official story about what had happened.

ABDELFATAH: Meanwhile, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, cautious in how it characterized the accident, gave out ambiguous and incomplete information.

R GOLDSTEEN: When we were going about our business to try and figure what was going on, it was very clear that this had secrecy and military values. So in other words, it had this kind of thing that this was another world that the public didn't need to get involved in or know about.

ABDELFATAH: Keep in mind, the NRC had for years reassured people that nuclear plants posed no danger, that the systems were fail-safe, that there was nothing to worry about. And what happened at Three Mile Island challenged all of that.

ARABLOUEI: As Raymond and Karen talked to people near Three Mile Island, they realized that was the real heart of the matter - this lack of transparency and poor communication on the part of the authorities overseeing the response. And to their surprise, the dominant emotion people seemed to be feeling wasn't fear or panic or even anger but betrayal - a real loss of trust.

R GOLDSTEEN: And that break in the trust of how they looked upon this organization, the government, and private industry, regarding their safety. In any society, you've got to have someone that you believe is protecting you, is taking care of you, is doing their best. If they make mistakes, people can understand that. If things don't always go right, people understand that. But if things are - look like they're purposefully dealt with to mislead, I think those are things that help to erode our trust in government.

ABDELFATAH: I mean, you both left the area during the crisis as residents. And you went back in the aftermath as researchers, right?

R GOLDSTEEN: Yeah.

ABDELFATAH: So did you feel like you were kind of on the same wavelength as the people you were talking to - like, that, you know, your trust had also been betrayed?

R GOLDSTEEN: I would say in the beginning, no, I really didn't think that. The more I got into it, the more I started understanding. So I didn't quite - probably incorrectly - think I was like them.

K GOLDSTEEN: You know, I think we had overall trust that these plants would be run safely and that they could be run safely. So I mean, definitely there was a loss of trust. You know, we felt definitely a loss of trust.

ABDELFATAH: Raymond and Karen welcomed their baby into the world in October of 1979, seven months after the accident. And they eventually published a paper together called "Trust And Its Relationship To Psychological Distress: The Case Of Three Mile Island."

ARABLOUEI: Three Mile Island was one of many crises in the 1970s that tested the public's trust. It was kind of the theme of the decade in American life. There was Watergate, the Vietnam War...

ROBEY: And there's also a lot of people who are still deeply concerned about nuclear anything, whether that's weapons or, you know, nuclear power.

ARABLOUEI: Now, before the accident, most people in the community surrounding Three Mile Island probably weren't on board with a lot of the activism of the times.

ZARETSKY: This was a conservative community, a pretty patriotic community, a community that we don't associate with, like, the anti-war movement of the late 1960s or the cultural upheavals of the late 1960s.

ARABLOUEI: But after the accident, that changed - at least when it came to the issue of nuclear power. People in the community protested the reopening of the nuclear plant, even when the NRC deemed it safe again. But Natasha Zaretsky says they still didn't identify with the broader movement.

ZARETSKY: I mean, I found letters, in the course of my research of locals writing to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and listing all of their family members who live near Three Mile Island and then saying, like, you know, I'm listing this for you because I want you to know I'm not a professional protester; I'm not an outside agitator. So the people at Three Mile Island are - they're both, like, becoming anti-nuclear...

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ZARETSKY: At the same time that they are somewhat wary of the anti-nuclear movement.

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ABDELFATAH: The nuclear industry started to slow down after Three Mile Island, and the accident dealt a real blow to any chance of it making a comeback - at least for a few decades. Public support for nuclear energy fell from an all-time high of 69% in 1977 to 46% in 1979.

ZARETSKY: There's no question that Three Mile Island played a really major symbolic role. I mean, from henceforth, the cooling towers - those images of the cooling towers became kind of iconic, and...

K GOLDSTEEN: Became such an ominous symbol after the event. You could never look at them in the same way.

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ABDELFATAH: Just seven years after Three Mile Island, what nearly happened on the Susquehanna River did happen nearly 5,000 miles away.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #12: It's near the city of Kiev, population 2.5 million, and about a thousand miles from Scandinavia.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #11: (Through interpreter) We were recently stricken by disaster - the Chernobyl nuclear power accident. It deeply affected the Soviet people and disturbed world opinion.

ABDELFATAH: It was a complete meltdown.

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UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #13: ...Has now claimed nine lives and injured 299 others.

ROBEY: Chernobyl was kind of a nail in the coffin for that era of the nuclear industry. It was very difficult for an American public to, you know, hear about or live through Three Mile Island and then see what a disaster could really look like in Chernobyl.

ARABLOUEI: In terms of impact, there's no comparison. Chernobyl's death toll from the accident was 31, with thousands more believed to have died in later years from radiation exposure. Officially, there were no deaths at Three Mile Island.

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ABDELFATAH: The pictures from Chernobyl are haunting - buildings razed to the ground, a sort of grayish dust envelops everything, empty streets - a ghost town. In contrast, the area around Three Mile Island remained relatively unchanged. At a glance, nothing seemed different.

ARABLOUEI: And yet, Three Mile Island lives on in our collective imagination as a catastrophic event in large part because of how the crisis was handled and communicated.

ZARETSKY: And I think that's kind of the key to the whole thing. I mean, we're seeing that now, too, right? Like, you know, you can kind of insulate yourself from panicking, in a way, if you feel empowered, if you feel like you're getting accurate information.

R GOLDSTEEN: If you think about what's going on with this virus, you get the feeling that the messaging from the political people is that there's the necessary equipment and everything is being taken care of. Then you find out that's not the case, and so it leads to doubts in the public that we can expect a government that will deal with this virus in a protective manner.

ROBEY: I sort of think that had the crisis happened in the reactor in the exact same way and the technology failed in the exact same way and the technicians did the exact same thing but the public communication would have been a little bit different, I think we would have had a very different lasting memory of Three Mile Island than we do now.

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ARABLOUEI: That's it for this week's show. I'm Ramtin Arablouei.

ABDELFATAH: I'm Rund Abdelfatah. And you've been listening to THROUGHLINE, from NPR.

ARABLOUEI: This episode was produced by me.

ABDELFATAH: And me. And...

JAMIE YORK, BYLINE: Jamie York.

LAWRENCE WU, BYLINE: Lawrence Wu.

LAINE KAPLAN LEVENSON, BYLINE: Laine Kaplan Levenson.

JULIE CAINE, BYLINE: Julie Caine.

N'JERI EATON, BYLINE: N'Jeri Eaton.

ARABLOUEI: Fact checking for this episode was done by Kevin Volkl.

ABDELFATAH: Special thanks to Sho Fujiwara for his voiceover work.

ARABLOUEI: Thanks also to Anya Grundmann and Kia Miakka Natisse (ph).

ARABLOUEI: Our music was composed by Ramtin and his band Drop Electric, which includes...

ANYA MIZANI: Anya Mizani.

SHO FUJIWARA: Sho Fujiwara.

NAVID MARVI: Navid Marvi.

ARABLOUEI: And please take a minute to fill out that survey about our podcast - npr.org/podcastsurvey - one word.

ABDELFATAH: Thanks for listening.

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