A Japanese Three Mile Island?

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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.

It is far too early to tell what the outcome will be at the stricken Japanese nuclear power plants in the hours and days ahead, particularly given the possibility of earthquake aftershocks that could cause further problems.  But once again, the limited information from Japanese officials has already made a bad situation even worse, particularly since most of those covering the story for media outlets have little background expertise on what a nuclear meltdown might entail.

Although the worst-case fears of a radioactive disaster did not occur at Three Mile Island, the accident and the poor way it was communicated to the public created a lasting climate of fear in the U.S. that helped bring new nuclear development to a halt. Later, the devastating 1986 nuclear power plant accident at Chernobyl (in what is now Ukraine) in which human error, poor design and the lack of a proper containment facility resulted in the widespread release of radioactive materials to the environment, created international safety concerns. (Both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl involved coolant problems within the reactor, which is also the case in Japan.)

Only recently has a resurgence of interest in nuclear power as an alternative to American oil dependence drawn growing bipartisan political support, from members of Congress to the Obama administration. 

The current Japanese nuclear energy emergency will undoubtedly have a profound global impact on public views of the safety hazards--and siting--of old and new nuclear power plants. And the speed of communication today--unheard of in the pre-cell phone, pre-Internet Three Mile Island era--means that news and speculation about what is happening, or might happen, in Japan is traveling so far and fast that thoughtful discussion is nearly impossible.

As a precautionary public health measure, Japanese officials have reacted quickly to widen the ring of evacuation around the malfunctioning nuclear plants--out to about 12 miles in the case of the Fukushima Daiichi power plant--to reduce the prospect of immediate radiation exposure should a major release occur. This in itself is creating an additional challenge as thousands flee the devastated area.

Interestingly enough, in the case of Three Mile Island, massive evacuation did not occur in the region around the plant, although there was much talk over several days of how a major evacuation might take place if the accident worsened. In fact, one of the most frightening aspects of the story, professionally and personally, were the confusing messages over a several day period from local, state and national officials about what to tell local residents and whether or not to evacuate.

When I arrived at Three Mile Island on Friday, March 30, 1979, as a young reporter for the Washington Star, I was able to drive right to the site of the accident and interview local residents living in sight of those large white cooling towers. I borrowed a phone at one home in order to call in an update to my news desk in time for our late edition.

The initial malfunction at the Three Mile Island accident had occurred two days earlier, and officials thought they had it under control and reassured the public that was so. But early on that Friday new concerns arose, and international attention focused over that weekend on a serious threat inside unit 2. (The fear was that a large hydrogen bubble in the pressure vessel containing the reactor core might burn or explode and rupture the pressure vessel and breach the containment unit. A U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission backgrounder provides a detailed account.)

For three days, I joined a growing crowd of reporters rushing from hurried press conferences by harried company officials to the state capitol in Harrisburg, where Gov. Richard L. Thornburgh and his associates struggled to get a handle on the unfolding disaster. Schools were closed and residents urged to stay inside. Thornburgh, in consultation with federal officials, finally advised voluntary evacuation by pregnant women and preschool children within a five-mile radius of the plant.  The immediate crisis resolved over the weekend, and on Sunday President Jimmy Carter (who was an officer in the U.S. Navy's nuclear
submarine program) arrived in Pennsylvania to announce to the world that the situation was under control.*

The aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident, however, was a presidential commission and series of investigations that resulted in a major overhaul of U.S. nuclear regulatory policies for years to come.

The world's eye will be trained on Japan in coming days as we follow all of the ramifications of the earthquake disaster, including the severe nuclear power problems the country now faces. Regardless of what happens, Japan, the U.S. and other countries around the globe that depend on nuclear power will have to cope with the repercussions of the Fukushima Daiichi accident for the foreseeable future.



*This sentence was updated for clarification. It previously said Carter was a "nuclear engineer."

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Cristine Russell is a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School of Government, president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, and consultant to the documentary Escape Fire: The Fight to Rescue American Healthcare. More

Russell is a Columbia Journalism Review contributing editor on science and the media. Russell was a national science reporter for The Washington Post and The Washington Star and appeared on PBS' Washington Week in Review. She serves on the boards of the USC Annenberg School for Communication, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, the Commonwealth Fund and Mills College and is on the selection committee for the National Academies of Science Communication Awards. She was a 2006 fellow at Harvard's Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. Russell is an honorary member of Sigma Xi, the scientific research society, and has a biology degree from Mills College.

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