“A crisis is something people must live with
until change has occurred and stability is
restored.” — Dan Nimmo, TV Network News
Coverage of Three Mile Island: Reporting
Disasters as Technological Fables
In the pre-dawn hours of March 28, 1979, a pressure valve failure in the Three Mile Island nuclear facility’s Unit 2 reactor precipitated the worst accident of its kind in US history. The reactor had been dedicated just a year earlier (an expansion of the Pennsylvania site’s capacity) and lauded as a superlative achievement in nuclear power. In the waning years of the Cold War, when the economics of the energy industry left the nation badly bruised, the atomic threat we had so feared promised a cleaner, cheaper electricity source — and the plant’s champions intended it as an example of the wonder of harnessing nuclear power. Yet, that spring, the cutting edge facility seemed just a source of an uncontrollable radiation hazard.
Naturally, the public was greatly alarmed when word of a core meltdown broke, and press coverage helped stir up excitement. Just a couple of weeks before, The China Syndrome, a fictional movie about an accident at a nuclear power plant, had premiered. The tense drama then seemed true to life, and public anxiety about nuclear power mushroomed accordingly.
When Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh called for the evacuation of pregnant women and small children from the area near the plant two days later, concerns escalated even more. A number of local residents emptied their bank accounts and fled, while the media reported that there was chance of a giant explosion from a hydrogen bubble in the reactor threatening. A public raised in the shadow of the atomic bombings of World War II and the threats of the Cold War nearly panicked.
As chance would have it, though, then-President Jimmy Carter was a trained nuclear engineer with field experience from a similar incident in Canada. In the weeks after the accident, he personally received twice-daily briefings about conditions at Three Mile Island from Harold Denton of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, complete with technical updates on the situation. Carter had confidence, based on his expertise and the information received, that there was no substantial threat to the public, and he didn’t bother to address the subject to the media beyond some cursory initial comments. He proceeded with his regular political appearances even as news agencies focused on the “nuclear nightmare.”
By the 4th day, Carter’s staff suggested that a calming act would be highly beneficial (treating it implicitly as if it were no threat had not assuaged fears), so on April 1st, Carter — with his wife, Rosalynn, beside him — flew to the plant and toured it with reporters in tow. Afterwards, the President spoke for a few minutes to a crowd at a nearby school gym and shook hands with some locals. The message was clear: there was no real danger if the President himself (and the First Lady) would go there to visit.
That same day, experts declared the threat over, as the size of the hydrogen bubble inside the reactor shrank and danger of an explosion was dismissed. The immediate crisis had ended, but there would be long-term fallout from the accidental stoking of public anxiety. New practices and requirements were introduced in order to appease anxious citizens — from upgrading and expanding protective equipment and monitoring devices at sites to additional training for staff and resident regulators assigned to nuclear facilities with a 24-hour central operations center to which they reported. At Three Mile Island, Unit 2 was decommissioned, and it never operated again.
These attempts to reassure the public had limited results. Opposition to expanding nuclear power facilities in the US remained high afterwards — lasting almost two generations and effectively curtailing many new construction projects until recently — though stockpiling nuclear weapons continued routinely. This year, regulators have okayed operation of a new plant (which tellingly is a government project through the TVA). If successful, it joins about sixty other operational plants around the country, indicating that though we fear the source, we — perhaps reluctantly even — continue to coexist with it anyway.