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

Israelis Quietly Expand Enclave in Palestinian District of Jerusalem

Estimated 500 settlers, armed or protected by paramilitary police, live in Silwan among 50,000 Palestinians More

Video US, Iran Face Similar Challenges in Syrian Fight Against IS

Both Washington, Tehran back fighters battling Islamic State militants in Iraq -- but in Syria they support opposing sides in country’s civil war More

China Boosts Efforts to Help Afghan, Regional Stability

Observers say China’s increased regional involvement are due to concerns that Afghan instability and the presence of anti-China militants in Pakistani border areas could fuel Xinjiang troubles 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.
After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rulesi
X
October 21, 2014 12:20 AM
European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video After Decades of Pressure, Luxembourg Drops Bank Secrecy Rules

European Union finance ministers have reached a breakthrough agreement that will make it more difficult for tax cheats to hide their money. The new legislation, which had been blocked for years by countries with a reputation as tax havens, was approved last week after Luxembourg and Austria agreed to lift their vetoes. But as Mil Arcega reports, it doesn’t mean tax cheats have run out of places to keep their money hidden.
Video

Video Kobani Refugees Welcome, Turkey Criticizes, US Airdrop

Residents of Kobani in northern Syria have welcomed the airdrop of weapons, ammunition and medicine to Kurdish militia who are resisting the seizure of their city by Islamic State militants. The Turkish government, however, has criticized the operation. VOA’s Scott Bobb reports from southeastern Turkey, across the border from Kobani.
Video

Video China Political Meeting Seeks to Improve Rule of Law

China’s communist leaders will host a top level political meeting this week, called the Fourth Plenum, and for the first time in the party’s history, rule of law will be a key item on the agenda. Analysts and Chinese media reports say the meetings could see the approval of long-awaited measures aimed at giving courts more independence and include steps to enhance an already aggressive and high-reaching anti-corruption drive. VOA’s Bill Ide has more from Beijing.
Video

Video US ‘Death Cafes’ Put Focus on the Finale

In contemporary America, death usually is a topic to be avoided. But the growing “death café” movement encourages people to discuss their fears and desires about their final moments. VOA’s Jerome Socolovsky reports.
Video

Video Ebola Orphanage Opens in Sierra Leone

Sierra Leone's first Ebola orphanage has opened in the Kailahun district. Hundreds of children orphaned since the beginning of the Ebola outbreak face stigma and rejection with nobody to care for them. Adam Bailes reports for VOA about a new interim care center that's aimed at helping the growing number of children affected by Ebola.
Video

Video Young Nairobi Tech Innovator on 'Track' in Security Business

A 24-year-old technology innovator in Nairobi has invented a tracking device that monitors and secures cars. He has also come up with what he claims is the most robust audio-visual surveillance system yet. As Lenny Ruvaga reports from the Kenyan capital, his innovations are offering alternative security solutions.
Video

Video Latinas Converting to Islam for Identity, Structure

Latinos are one of the fastest growing groups in the Muslim religion. According to the Pew Research Center, about 6 percent of American Muslims are Latino. And a little more than half of new converts are female. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti travelled to Miami, Florida -- where two out of every three residents is Hispanic -- to learn more.
Video

Video Exclusive: American Joins Kurds' Anti-IS Fight

The United States and other Western nations have expressed alarm about their citizens joining Islamic State forces in Syria and Iraq. In a rare counterpoint to the phenomenon, an American has taken up arms with the militants' Syrian Kurdish opponents. Elizabeth Arrott has more in this exclusive profile by VOA Kurdish reporter Zana Omer in Ras al Ayn, Syria.
Video

Video South Korea Confronts Violence Within Military Ranks

Every able-bodied South Korean male between 18 and 35 must serve for 21 to 36 months in the country’s armed forces, depending upon the specific branch. For many, service is a rite of passage to manhood. But there are growing concerns that bullying and violence come along with the tradition. Reporter Jason Strother has more from Seoul.
Video

Video North Carolina Emerges as Key Election Battleground

U.S. congressional midterm elections will be held on November 4th and most political analysts give Republicans an excellent chance to win a majority in the U.S. Senate, which Democrats now control. So what are the issues driving voters in this congressional election year? VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone traveled to North Carolina, one of the most politically competitive states in the country, to find out.
Video

Video Comanche People Maintain Pride in Their Heritage

The Comanche (Indian nation) once were called the “Lords of the Plains,” with an empire that included half the land area of current day Texas, large parts of Oklahoma, New Mexico, Kansas and Colorado.The fierceness and battle prowess of these warriors on horseback delayed the settlement of most of West Texas for four decades. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports from Lawton, Oklahoma, that while their warrior days are over, the 15,000 members of the Comanche Nation remain a proud people.
Video

Video Turkey Campus Attacks Raise Islamic Radicalization Fears

Concerns are growing in Turkey of Islamic radicalization at some universities, after clashes between supporters of the jihadist group Islamic State (IS) or ISIS, and those opposed to the extremists. Pro-jihadist literature is on sale openly on the streets of Istanbul. Critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye to radicalism at home, while Kurds accuse the president of supporting IS - a charge strongly denied. Henry Ridgwell reports from London.

All About America

AppleAndroid