News / Science & Technology

Earlier US Nuclear Accident Provides Lessons for Japan Disaster

Three Mile Island nuclear power plant (file photo)
Three Mile Island nuclear power plant (file photo)
Gary Thomas

The problems at Japan's nuclear power plants following the earthquake and tsunami hearken back to the Three Mile Island nuclear accident 32 years ago.  Participants in that event say there are similarities between that accident and the events at Japans' Fukushima reactors, but there are also stark differences.  Our correspondent, who covered the U.S. nuclear mishap, reports that in both cases, there was political as well as physical damage.

In the predawn hours of Mar. 28, 1979, a stuck valve at one of the two nuclear power reactors at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania set off a chain of events leading to the world’s first commercial nuclear power plant accident.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, blamed the accident on a combination of equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and worker errors.  No one was killed or injured at the plant or in the nearby communities.  But it was nevertheless a harrowing time as the United States tried to come to grips with something that had never occurred before.

As news of the accident spread during six tense days, public unease was widespread.  Richard Thornburgh, who was governor of Pennsylvania at the time, says he initially gave out misleading or confusing information because he had to rely on what he was being told by the power company that ran Three Mile Island. He asked for help from Washington and got it, in the form of an NRC nuclear engineer who Thornburgh labels the hero of Three Mile Island.

"It was a very, very stressful time up until Friday March 30, 1979, with the arrival of Harold Denton who was dispatched at my request by President Carter," said Thornburgh. "He was an engineer, a career engineer with the NRC. He became our principal source thereafter and it made a big difference."

To a nervous public that was also angry over the initial stream of misleading information, Denton was a calm and reassuring voice, who spoke with authority and credibility.  Denton, now 79 and retired from the NRC, says he had official backing to speak candidly to the public about the disaster at Three Mile Island, which he refers to as TMI.

"I really had a unique role at TMI, looking back," said Denton. "And to have the backing that I had from President Carter and Governor Thornburgh sort of gave a certain legitimacy to what I was reporting every day. And I just tried to tell it like it was. You may not have that opinion.  But that was the goal for the three weeks I was up there.  And I came in at the right time because the power company had lost certainly part of its credibility by not recognizing the seriousness of the accident at the beginning."

Three Mile Island did not happen because of an earthquake and tsunami, as occurred in Japan.  Denton said the Fukushima reactors have suffered far greater damage and resulted in more radiation emissions than at Three Mile Island.  And Denton points out a crucial difference between the two disasters - Three Mile Island never lost its power supply, as has happened at the Japanese plant.

"TMI had power," he said. "Infrastructure was such that people could move in immediately personnel and equipment as needed.  In Japan, they didn’t have that luxury like I had. So there were a number of differences."

However, Thornburgh says the technical challenges of trying to bring either Three Mile Island or Fukushima under control and prevent radiation leaks are virtually the same.  And so, too, are the challenges of getting good information and maintaining credibility with a worried public.  He says Japanese officials are learning that the hard way.

"Re-examine your sources," he said. "You can be the best decision maker in the world, but if you are making a decision on facts that are wrong, it’s not worth a thing. Because the basic premise of any decision you’re making and handling is that you understand the facts and got them firmly in your grip. If you don’t, you’re in big trouble. They found this out a couple times already."

As Harold Denton points out, the Three Mile Island accident led to a loss of public confidence in the nuclear power industry not just in the U.S. but abroad.  

"TMI resulted in a lot of people losing confidence in the industry and its safety," said Denton. "And we haven’t had a new plant come into operation in this country in 30 years.  And it wasn’t just the fear of [nuclear] plants, but it was economics. Plants got very expensive compared to, say, natural gas, as a fuel."

Denton and other analysts rank the Fukushima disaster as worse than Three Mile Island, but not as severe as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine.  But they say the damage to public confidence in nuclear power may be comparable to both previous accidents.  

You May Like

Lesotho Faces New Round of Violence, Political Crisis

Brutal killing of military officer has sent former leaders back into S. Africa where they're watching anxiously as regional officials head in to try to restore peace More

Video US Diplomat Expects Adoption of Bosnian Massacre Anniversary Resolution

Samantha Power says there's broad consensus about killings in Bosnia's war, but Russia calls resolution 'divisive,' backs UN countermeasure More

UN Report Exposes Widespread Boko Haram Atrocities

Damning report graphically details pattern of vicious, widespread atrocities committed by Islamist militants More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountaini
X
July 02, 2015 4:10 AM
Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Olympics Construction Scars Sacred Korean Mountain

Environmentalists in South Korea are protesting a Winter Olympics construction project to build a ski slope through a 500-year-old protected forest. Brian Padden reports that although there is strong national support for hosting the 2018 Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, there are growing public concerns over the costs and possible ecological damage at the revered mountain.
Video

Video Xenophobia Victims in South Africa Flee Violence, Then Return

Many Malawians fled South Africa early this year after xenophobic attacks on African immigrants. But many quickly found life was no better at home and have returned to South Africa – often illegally and without jobs, and facing the tough task of having to start over. Lameck Masina and Anita Powell file from Johannesburg.
Video

Video Family of American Marine Calls for Release From Iranian Prison

As the crowd of journalists covering the Iran talks swells, so too do the opportunities for media coverage.  Hoping to catch the attention of high-level diplomats, the family of American-Iranian marine Amir Hekmati is in Vienna, pleading for his release from an Iranian prison after nearly 4 years.  VOA’s Heather Murdock reports from Vienna.
Video

Video UK Holds Terror Drill as MPs Mull Tunisia Response

After pledging a tough response to last Friday’s terror attack in Tunisia, which came just days before the 10th anniversary of the bomb attacks on London’s transport network, British security services are shifting their focus to overseas counter-terror operations. VOA's Henry Ridgwell has more.
Video

Video Obama on Cuba: This is What Change Looks Like

President Barack Obama says the United States will soon reopen its embassy in Cuba for the first time since 1961, ending a half-century of isolation. VOA White House correspondent Luis Ramirez reports.
Video

Video Hate Groups Spread Influence Via Internet

Hate groups of various kinds are using the Internet for propaganda and recruitment, and a Jewish human rights organization that monitors these groups, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, says their influence is growing. The messages are different, but the calls to hatred or violence are similar. VOA's Mike O’Sullivan reports.
Video

Video US Silica Sand Mining Surge Worries Illinois Residents, Businesses

Increased domestic U.S. oil and gas production, thanks to advances known as “fracking,” has created a boom for other industries supporting that extraction. Demand for silica sand, used in fracking, could triple over the next five years. In the Midwest state of Illinois, people living near the mines are worried about how increased silica sand mining will affect their businesses and their health. VOA’s Kane Farabaugh has more in this first of a series of reports.
Video

Video Blind Somali Journalist Defies Odds in Mogadishu

Despite improving security in the last few years, Somalia remains one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist – even more so for someone who cannot see. Abdulaziz Billow has the story of journalist Abdifatah Hassan Kalgacal, who has been reporting from the Somali capital for the last decade despite being blind.
Video

Video Texas Defies Same-Sex Marriage Ruling

Texas state officials have criticized the US Supreme Court decision giving same-sex couples the right to marry nationwide. The attorney general of Texas says last week's decision did not overrule constitutional "rights of religious liberty," and therefore officials performing wedding services can refuse to perform them for same-sex couples if it is against their religious beliefs. Zlatica Hoke reports on the controversy.
Video

Video Rabbi Hits Road to Heal Jewish-Muslim Relations in France

France is on high alert after last week's terrorist attack near the city Lyon, just six months after deadly Paris shootings. The attack have added new tensions to relations between French Jews and Muslims. France’s Jewish and Muslim communities also share a common heritage, though, and as far as one French rabbi is concerned, they are destined to be friends. From the Paris suburb of La Courneuve, Lisa Bryant reports about Rabbi Michel Serfaty and his friendship bus.
Video

Video Saudi Leaks Expose ‘Checkbook Diplomacy’ In Battle With Iran

Saudi Arabia’s willingness to wield its oil money on the global diplomatic stage appears to have been laid bare, after the website WikiLeaks published tens of thousands of leaked cables from Riyadh’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video In Kenya, Police Said to Shoot First, Ask Questions Later

An organization that documents torture and extrajudicial killings says Kenyan police were responsible for 1,252 shooting deaths in five cities, including Nairobi, between 2009 and 2014, representing 67 percent of all gun deaths in the areas reviewed. Gabe Joselow has more from Nairobi.

VOA Blogs