On March 28, 1979, there was a transient event at the second reactor at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant just south of Harrisburg, the capital city of Pennsylvania. A transient event. It was the term used by a plant spokesman to describe the fact that all hell was on the verge of breaking loose.
A broken pump, a stuck valve, a false reading, and operator error drained the water out of the second reactor, exposing the superheated core and threatening a meltdown and massive radiation release. The reactor core partially melted, but after three tense days, the containment system held. The nuclear industry’s credibility didn’t.
At first, Metropolitan Edison, the plant’s owners, said the problem was under control and that only 1 percent of the reactor’s fuel had melted. It was later revealed that about half the fuel was gone, and TMI was perilously close to disaster. Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. William Scranton relayed the utility’s reassurances that no radiation had escaped, when in fact contaminated water had poured into an adjoining building. “And it was at that point that I realized … that we could not rely on Metropolitan Edison for the kind of information we needed to make decisions,” Scranton later said. (PBS's American Experience created "Meltdown at Three Mile Island," and the website includes a good description of how the days played out, including the quotes mentioned here.)
Scranton’s boss, Gov. Dick Thornburgh, returned from an out-of-state trip to find a mountain of conflicting information, and a public that was trusting none of it. Evacuation plans existed but were virtually useless. When concerns rose over a potentially explosive bubble of hydrogen gas inside the reactor, Thornburgh ordered nearby residents to evacuate two days later. Two days after that, President Jimmy Carter visited TMI — on April Fool's Day.
If the industry torpedoed its own credibility, an immense coincidence in pop culture didn’t help, either. Just days before TMI nearly blew, a movie called "The China Syndrome" starring Jane Fonda was released. It was art for TMI to imitate: A California nuclear plant nearly melts down, and the company covers it up. The script also had an eerie reference to a 1950s Atomic Energy Commission study that used Pennsylvania as a case study for a meltdown.
Even before TMI, the nuclear industry had been battling image problems, and growing political opposition. In 1977, more than 1,400 people were arrested in a protest at a planned Seabrook, New Hampshire, nuclear site. (One of Seabrook’s two reactors was eventually built, going online in 1990. Plans for a second were scrapped.)
But after TMI, public opposition broadened, and Wall Street walked. The nuke industry went into a decades-long drought, with no new reactors commissioned into the 21st century. In 1986, a Soviet-designed reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine melted down, with a death toll in the hundreds and radiation spewed over much of Europe. Chernobyl caused the epidemic of cancer that some predicted after Three Mile Island, but that never materialized in Pennsylvania.
Dueling studies came to different conclusions in the 1990s. A Columbia University study published in 1990 saw no impact on cancer rates from TMI. Seven years later, a University of North Carolina team, using the same data as the Columbia researchers, found an increase in lung cancer and leukemia in areas downwind from the reactor.
In 1983, Metropolitan Edison was busted for falsifying documents related to the accident and reactor safety, according to this helpful chronology by the Washington Post. Officers for the company pled guilty to six, and no contest to one, of the 11-count indictment.
Today, the industry is ready for its comeback: Gone are the days of too-cheap-to-meter propaganda. (My favorite is a 1966 short film by Northeast Utilities: "The Atom and Eve" shows an alluring dancer, pirouetting around household appliances and fondling a refrigerator — all brought to you by clean, safe nuclear energy.) In its place is a global warming-based sales pitch: Carbon-free nukes, now providing about 20 percent of the nation’s electric supply, could replace a big chunk of the 50 percent provided by coal, and several utilities have plants on the drawing board.
All that remains to be conquered are the environmental risks throughout every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle: Uranium mining is inalterably destructive; its legacy was reported in a remarkable series in the Los Angeles Times; and the end of the cycle — dealing with nuclear waste — is barely closer to resolution than it was 30 years ago. Then there’s winning the faith of Wall Street — and the public. That’s all that’s left to do after the lie of TMI.
Peter Dykstra is the former executive producer of CNN's Science, Tech and Weather Unit.