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

Republican Majority in Congress Off to Rough Start

Standoff over Homeland Security funding exposes philosophical, tactical problems within party More

Pakistan Blocks Baloch Activist from US Trip

Human Rights Commission of Pakistan slams Islamabad officials for stopping people from leaving country to attend human rights conference More

Video Muslims Long Thrived in North Carolina Before Students Killed

Idyll shattered February 10, when three Muslim university students living in Chapel Hill were gunned down by a neighbor 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.
Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisisi
X
March 06, 2015 12:28 AM
There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Sierra Leone Ebola Orphans Face Another Crisis

There's growing concern about the future of an orphanage run by a British charity in Sierra Leone, after a staff member and his wife died this week from Ebola. The Saint George Foundation Orphanage in Freetown is now in quarantine, with more than 20 children and seven staff in lock-down. The BBC has agreed to share Ebola-related material with Voice of America because of the difficulties faced by media organizations reporting the crisis. Clive Myrie reports from Sierra Leone.
Video

Video Growing Concerns Over Whether Myanmar’s Next Elections Will Be Fair

Myanmar has scheduled national elections for November that are also expected to include a landmark referendum on the country's constitution. But there are growing concerns over whether the government is taking the necessary steps to prepare for a free and fair vote. VOA Correspondent Steve Herman was recently in Myanmar and files this report from our Southeast Asia bureau in Bangkok.
Video

Video Nigeria’s Ogonis Divided Over Resuming Oil Production

More than two decades ago, Nigeria’s Ogoni people forced Shell oil company to cease drilling on their land, saying it was polluting the environment. Now, some Ogonis say it’s time for the oil to flow once again. Chris Stein reports from Kegbara Dere, Nigeria.
Video

Video Winter Weather Strikes Eastern US...Again!

A new wintry blast has hit more than 20 states in the U.S. Midwest and Mid-Atlantic region, adding more snow to the piles from previous storms. Tired of shoveling snow, breaking the ice and dealing with accidents, flight delays and property damage, most Americans hope this is the last bout of cold for the season. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Muslims Long Thrived in N Carolina Before Slaying of 3 Students

The killings of three Muslim students in North Carolina early last month came as Muslims across the United States have felt under siege, partly as a result of terrorist attacks being committed internationally in the name of their faith. But Muslims have long thrived in university cities in this part of the American South. VOA's Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Fuel Shortages in Nigeria Threaten Election Campaigns

Nigeria is suffering a gas shortage as the falling oil price has affected the country’s ability to import and distribute refined fuels. Coming just weeks before scheduled March 28 elections, the shortage could have a big impact on the campaign, as Henry Ridgwell reports for VOA.
Video

Video Report: Human Rights in Annexed Crimea Deteriorating

A new report by Freedom House and the Atlantic Council of the United States says the human rights situation in Crimea has deteriorated since the peninsula was annexed by Russia in March of last year. The report says the new authorities in Crimea are discriminating against minorities, suppressing freedom of expression, and forcing residents to assume Russian citizenship or leave. Zlatica Hoke has more.
Video

Video 50 Years Later African-Americans See New Voting Rights Battles Ahead

Thousands of people will gather to mark the 50th anniversary of a historic civil rights march on March 7th in Selma, Alabama. In 1965, dozens of people were seriously injured during the event known as “Bloody Sunday,” after police attacked African-American demonstrators demanding voting rights. VOA’s Chris Simkins introduces us to some civil rights pioneers who are still fighting for voting rights in Alabama more than 50 years later.
Video

Video Craft Brewers Taking Hold in US Beer Market

Since the 1950’s, the U.S. beer industry has been dominated by a handful of huge breweries. But in recent years, the rapid rise of small craft breweries has changed the American market and, arguably, the way people drink beer. VOA’s Jeff Custer reports.
Video

Video Video Claims to Show Shia Forces in Iraq Executing Sunni Boy

A graphic mobile phone video is spreading on the Internet, claiming to show Iraqi forces or Shia militia executing a handcuffed Sunni boy. Experts have yet to verify the video, but already Islamic State followers are publicizing it across social media, playing on deep-rooted sectarian fears. VOA’s Jeff Seldin reports.
Video

Video Ukrainian Authorities Struggle to Secure a Divided Mariupol

Since last month's cease-fire went into effect, shelling around the port city of Mariupol has decreased, but it is thought pro-Russian separatists remain poised to attack. For the city’s authorities, a major challenge is gaining the trust of residents, while at the same time rooting out informants who are passing sensitive information to the rebels. Patrick Wells reports for VOA.
Video

Video Myanmar's Traditional Fashion Choices Endure

The sartorial choices of Myanmar’s men and women quickly catch the eye of any visitor to the tropical Southeast Asian country. But at a time when Myanmar’s political and economic opening is bringing affordable western fashions to the masses, will the country’s unique fashion trends endure? VOA Correspondent Steve Herman in Yangon explores that question.

All About America

Circumventing Censorship

An Internet Primer for Healthy Web Habits

As surveillance and censoring technologies advance, so, too, do new tools for your computer or mobile device that help protect your privacy and break through Internet censorship.
More