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

Captured IS Militants Explain Why They Fought

Fighters from Turkey, Syria tell VOA Kurdish Service what drew them to extremism, jihad More

Security Experts Split on Kenyan Barrier Wall

Experts divided on whether initiative aiming to keep out al-Shabab militants is long-awaited solution or misguided effort More

Video Philippines Wants Tourists Spending Money at New Casinos

Officials say they hope to turn Manila into the next Macau, which has long been Asia’s gambling hub 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.
Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grievingi
X
Benno Muchler
March 26, 2015 3:41 PM
Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Liberia's Almost Last Ebola Patient Grateful but Still Grieving

Beatrice Yardolo was to make history as Liberia’s last Ebola patient. Liberians recently started counting down 42 days, the period that has to go by without a single new infection until the World Health Organization can declare a country Ebola-free. That countdown stopped on March 20 when there was another new case of Ebola, making Yardolo’s story a reminder that Ebola is far from over. Benno Muchler reports from Monrovia.
Video

Video Cambodian Land Grabs Threaten Traditional Communities

Indigenous communities in Cambodia's Ratanakiri province say the government’s economic land concession policy is taking away their land and traditional way of life, making many fear that their identity will soon be lost. Local authorities, though, have denied this is the case. VOA's Say Mony went to investigate and filed this report, narrated by Colin Lovett.
Video

Video US, South Korea Conduct Joint Military Exercises

The Eighth U.S. Army Division and the Eighth Republic of Korea Mechanized Infantry Division put on a well orchestrated show of force for the media this week during their joint military training exercises in South Korea. VOA’s Seoul correspondent Brian Padden was there and reports the soldiers were well disciplined both in conducting a complex live fire exercise and in staying on message with the press.
Video

Video Space Program Status Disappoints 'Last Man on the Moon'

One of the films that drew big crowds last week at the annual South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, tells the story of the last human being to stand on the moon, U.S. astronaut Eugene Cernan. It has been 42 years since Cernan returned from the moon and he laments that no one else has gone there since. VOA’s Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Young Filmmakers Shine Spotlight on Giving Back

A group of student filmmakers from across the United States joined President Barack Obama at the White House this month for the second annual White House Student Film Festival. Fifteen short films were officially selected from more than 1,500 entries by students aged 6 through 18. The filmmakers and their families then joined the president and a group of celebrities for a screening of their films. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video VOA Exclusive: Interview with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani

Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, during his first visit as president to Washington, gave a one-on-one interview with VOA Afghan Service reporter Said Suleiman Ashna, about his request for a change in U.S. troop levels, the threat from the Islamic State, and repairing relations with the United States and Pakistan. The interview was held at Blair House, late Sunday, in Pashto.
Video

Video California Science Center Tells Story of Dead Sea Scrolls

The ancient manuscripts were uncovered in the mid-20th century, and they are still yielding clues about life and religious beliefs in ancient Israel. As VOA's Mike O'Sullivan reports, an exhibit in Los Angeles shows how modern science is bringing the history of these ancient documents to life.
Video

Video Angelina Jolie Takes Another Bold Step

Hollywood actress and filmmaker Angelina Jolie has revealed she had her ovaries and fallopian tubes removed to lower her odds of getting cancer. Doctors say the huge publicity over her decision will help raise awareness about the importance of cancer screening. VOA’s George Putic has more

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