A Japanese Three Mile Island?

The accident at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant, and the government's clumsy response, both resemble the 1979 U.S. nuclear disaster

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In the aftermath of Japan's devastating earthquake, international fear and uncertainty over the state of emergency declared at two of the country's nuclear power plants--and the possibility of a core meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant--have already drawn inevitable comparisons with America's 1979 Three Mile Island accident.

Three Mile Island, in which a partial meltdown occurred, was indeed the worst commercial nuclear power accident in U.S. history, as those of us who covered that frightening event vividly recall. Who could forget the looming white cooling towers that became the iconic image of nuclear disaster?

Media coverage of Japan's current nuclear emergency has focused on the danger of a meltdown at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant 160 miles northeast of Tokyo. But, largely lost in the early coverage, is the fact that a meltdown does not necessarily equate to a massive radioactive release to the environment unless the containment structure surrounding the core also fails. The big unanswered questions in the Japanese emergency are the degree to which the hazardous nuclear materials remain safely contained within the plant and the control the operators have over the process.

In the case of the Three Mile Island accident, a severe partial meltdown in the plant's unit 2 reactor core, after a loss of coolant, was largely contained within the American nuclear plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania. Only very small off-site releases of radioactivity occurred during the accident, which resulted from mechanical malfunctions and human error. Extensive studies later concluded that the radioactive levels involved were not considered to be of concern to public health or the environment.

However, as is now the case in Japan, the unfolding drama at Three Mile Island over a five-day period more than three decades ago was accompanied by tremendous uncertainty, confusion, and contradictory information about what was actually happening and what might happen. Poor coordination and communication by government and company officials at Three Mile Island turned out to be a case study in how not to handle a nuclear emergency. And the media coverage, and public understanding of the accident, suffered greatly as a result.

Today, complaints about poor communication concerning the emergency situation at the nuclear power plants in northeast Japan are arising once again. Word Saturday morning of an explosion at the Fukushima Daiichi plant further escalated concerns about nuclear disaster and left news outlets scurrying to find experts capable of explaining the possible nuclear scenarios--and hazards--that Japan may face.

Amid the communication chaos, a Today Show interview with MIT professor Richard Lester provided a remarkably calm voice of informed reason on Saturday morning. Asked about the prospect of a nuclear meltdown, Lester said that is "certainly a possibility at this point. But it is important to say that fuel melting would not necessarily lead to significant radiation off site." 

Lester, who heads MIT's Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering, noted that at Three Mile Island a "significant fraction of the core did melt but remained in the reactor vessel, and there was not a large release of radiation into the environment.... That would not be the best scenario, but it would not be the worst one."

The key issue, he emphasized, is whether operators of the Japanese plants are able to control and contain the nuclear materials and keep the containment barriers intact in order to prevent widespread radioactive release.

There are unfortunately few specialty reporters these days covering nuclear energy and technology closely. The New York Times' veteran energy and environment reporter Matthew L. Wald is one of the few with such expertise, and it showed in the paper's initial coverage of the story. While the Japanese nuclear plant explosion topped the Times' website homepage, online stories today by Michael Wines from Tokyo and Wald from Washington D.C. provided a far more measured assessment of the changing situation than the largely breathless, frantic coverage and commentary elsewhere. 

"An explosion at a nuclear power plant in northern Japan on Saturday blew the roof off one building and destroyed the exterior walls of a crippled reactor, escalating the emergency confronting Japan after a huge earthquake and tsunami...." began a midday story by the two reporters. But they immediately put that in perspective, saying that "officials said late Saturday that leaks of radioactive material from the plant, which began before the explosion, were receding and that a major meltdown was not imminent."

The Times story later noted that "government officials and executives of Tokyo Electric Power, which runs the plant, gave confusing accounts of the causes of the explosion and the damage it caused."  

Japanese residents and outside experts interviewed by CNN voiced similar frustration about "a lack of information from the government" and "contradictory partial information," with one urging officials to "tell us more about what is actually happening at the plant." Obviously, the situation there is further hampered by the multiple problems the government faces in the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

Presented by

Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.

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