Hot on HuffPost:

See More Stories

New Nukes? A Three Mile Island 'Survivor' Says Not So Fast

5 years ago
  0 Comments Say Something  »
Text Size
President Obama's move to revive nuclear power, with $8.3 billion in federal loan guarantees for two reactors in Georgia, has special resonance for those of us who experienced the Three Mile Island nuclear scare. In retrospect, the T-shirts that said "I Survived TMI" were overly dramatic. But at the time it didn't seem that way -- which may be why I'm deeply ambivalent about the second coming of nukes.
In March 1979, I was in my 20s, the only woman among five reporters in the cramped Associated Press bureau at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, Pa. And I was a newcomer. I had been there just six weeks when the report came in that state troopers had shut down a reactor in Middletown, about 10 miles down the Susquehanna River.
It was the start of a terrifying few days during which we all learned phrases like "partial core meltdown" and "fuel rods" and "containment building."
Some of the first foreign journalists to arrive were from Japan, evoking the spectacularly un-reassuring memory of the A-bomb and rampant radiation sickness. But then, nothing at the time was reassuring. The AP sent in radiation suits and drew up a helicopter evacuation plan. I was to be on the first flight out; the hope was to preserve my ability to bear children.
It never came to that (and a few years later I had two sons). Still, there were surreal and heart-pounding moments that remain vivid today.

Related: Jill Lawrence on 'West Wing Report': Three Mile Island and New Nuclear Plants

I remember driving through Middletown in unseasonably warm weather a day or two after the episode began, my car window wide open. Suddenly a radio announcer barked an emergency warning: Bursts of radiation coming from the plant! Close your windows! Stay indoors! I closed the window and tried not to panic.
I remember the Hersheypark Arena evacuation center, teeming with pregnant women, preschool children and out-of-town media. I remember going to see "The China Syndrome," a film about a core meltdown at a nuclear plant, during the TMI siege -- and the gasps throughout the theater when one of the characters said a meltdown could contaminate an area "the size of the state of Pennsylvania."
There was the celebrity-packed 1979 No Nukes concert in Washington. I attended as a private citizen (wearing a Solar Power T-shirt, it can now be told) and saw John Hall of the band Orleans lead an all-star chorus of "Power," an ode to "the warm power of the sun" and a protest of "atomic poison power" (get the full flavor of the moment in this YouTube clip). There was also the modest Harrisburg version of the Gridiron Show, where journalists poke fun at the powerful. We pranksters rewrote Joni Mitchell's Both Sides Now to parody then-Gov. Dick Thornburgh's positions on nuclear power.
The more serious aftermath of TMI included lawsuits, cancer scares, years of debate over who should pay for the billion-dollar cleanup, and the dramatic moment when cleanup workers in space suits would enter the containment building for the first time. It was before cell phones and laptops. Reporters skirmished angrily over two available landlines (yes, I was one of them) and one poor guy -- who wasn't at the scene -- sent out a bulletin from his office trumpeting the milestone. Except the door had stuck and no workers got inside that day. Seven years later came Chernobyl, the nuclear meltdown that forced the evacuation of more than 336,000 people and is ultimately expected to kill 4,000.
Given all that, it's not surprising that nuclear power has been on hold in the United States since TMI, with 104 plants supplying about 20 percent of U.S. electricity. But nor is it surprising that it seems poised for a comeback. Last year, Gallup found that 59 percent of the public favored nuclear power. The industry has been far more focused on safety since TMI, both in procedures and design.
External factors also have changed. There was no alarm in 1979 about global warming or the fossil fuels that contribute to it. Gasoline had not gone to $4 a gallon. And the nations selling us oil were not potential nuclear foes or havens for suicidal terrorist attackers. "Those who had misgivings about nuclear power had a clear path to raise them in a vacuum," absent the concerns we have now, Thornburgh told me. He said the 30-year, post-TMI debate "has been overtaken by events."
Thornburgh came into office 72 days before the accident and gave a harrowing account of his experience last year at a 30th anniversary observance hosted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. "Anybody who went through that period of time there has some residual concerns," he told me. But he said that as a practical matter, the country needs more nuclear power in its energy mix. "If it is really unsafe and undesirable, you ought to dismantle all the plants that are out there now," Thornburgh said. "Nobody's suggesting that."
What about some of the other players from the TMI era? John Hall, the "No Nukes" musician, is now a congressman from upstate New York and he's still fighting nuclear power. W. Wilson Goode, a former Philadelphia mayor who now works with children whose parents are in prison, is another opponent. He was chairman of the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission when it had to figure out how much, if anything, utility customers should pay for the accident cleanup.
Goode says his views were shaped by the concerns of people living around the plant and "the almost reckless ways" that the utility management dealt with the accident. "Every nuclear plant we build, we run a risk of a catastrophe at some point ... that cannot be controlled," he told me. "No one has yet convinced me that it is something we can make safe. And the fact is they're easy targets for terrorists."
Thomas Cochran, a senior scientist in the nuclear program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, advised the NRC on the TMI cleanup and a law firm on how to spend $5 million from a successful class action lawsuit (they did cancer studies and installed radiation monitors near TMI). He says federal help to the nuclear industry -- on proliferation, risk insurance, waste disposal and now loan guarantees -- is giving an unwarranted financial edge to huge plants that take 10 years of lead time to plan and build. It's especially galling to Cochran that Obama is selling nuclear power as a way to cut carbon pollution and slow climate change.
"It's not a good idea for the government to go around subsidizing uneconomical technology," Cochran told me. "You're in effect putting your thumb on the scale and penalizing technologies that provide climate relief faster and cheaper and more safely than nuclear power."
To the extent that Obama offered the nuclear loan guarantees to win Republican votes for an energy and climate bill, Cochran added, the move came too early: "From a crass political standpoint, he should have used it as a bargaining chip."
Politics aside, Cochran and Thornburgh -- a Republican -- agree that the great unresolved issue is how to dispose of nuclear waste. It is ironic that Obama demonstrated a renewed commitment to nuclear power in the same month that his budget sounded the death knell for the highly controversial Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository in Nevada.
So what about me? Much as I love that John Hall YouTube clip, I am not a flower child. I look at France and see a society functioning smoothly and safely on nuclear power. And yet, if nuclear is so important to our future, why are we still waiting for a definitive solution to the nuclear waste problem? We have the brainpower, I don't doubt that. But will we be able to summon the will and the wallet, as the first President Bush once put it, to get it done?
In the end, nuclear power is one of those facets of modern life that requires a leap of faith, the kind I take every time I step onto an airplane. Do you understand technology? Do you trust it? Do you trust those responsible for keeping you safe? It's been a long time since I survived TMI. I'm getting there on the trust thing. The feds could close the deal with me by launching a Manhattan Project on nuclear waste disposal, deadline any time before those new Georgia reactors come online.
Filed Under: Energy
Outbrain - The Most Trusted Content Discovery Platform

Get Your Content Discovered.

Promote your content on premium websites

Learn More ›

Outbrain Amplify:
Get your content discovered

Your content will be promoted on the web's largest and most respected media properties, including CNN.com, Slate and ESPN. We make sure it's seen precisely when people will find it most interesting.

Learn More

Outbrain Engage: The solution for a modern publisher

Outbrain Engage is a full stack software solution that empowers an entire media organization to more effectively manage its online content and programming experience.

Learn More

The world's largest content discovery platform

We bring together premium publishers and marketers of all sizes (including many of the world's leading brands) into the world's largest and most vibrant content marketplace. Learn more about Outbrain ›

561 Million

The global audience reached by Outbrain each month*

190 Billion

The total recommendations we serve consumers monthly

80%

Of the world’s leading brands use Outbrain

* Audience reach according to comScore, September 2014. Leading brands via Ad Age DataCenter / Kantar Media, 2014.

Andy Blau
We selected Outbrain not only because the revenues were higher than others, but because its engine drives better recommendations than others.
Andy Blau
Senior Vice President, Group General Manager
Time Inc.
Dan Horowitz
It's less about buying traffic than it is about reaching the right people with relevant headlines to get them to your content.
Dan Horowitz
EVP and Senior Partner
Fleishman-Hillard Digital
Katrina Craigwell
Our goal is always to deliver content that adds value to the conversations being held by the end user. Outbrain allows us to do just that.
Katrina Craigwell
Global Manager of Digital Marketing
GE
Bailey Foote
The fact that we’re able to drive these kinds of transactions with consumers at scale and with increasing efficiency has made Outbrain paramount to our marketing strategy.
Bailey Foote
E-commerce Manager
The Line
Neal Moore
You cannot leave it to chance that someone will find and engage with your content. Outbrain can put your content in the midst of the world’s most prestigious publications.
Neal Moore
CEO
Click2View
Zach Zavos
Having links to our content appearing directly on premium publisher sites helped us establish our brand.
Zach Zavos
Co-Founder
Conversant Media
Mike Brito
Outbrain is one of those [critical] components helping us deliver the right messages to the right contingent at massive scale and in real time to counter a crisis.
Mike Brito
Group Director
WCG

A global footprint of service

We operate offices in 11 global territories and we partner with publishers and marketers in over 55 countries, including the U.S., UK, France, Brazil, India and Japan. Come join us ›

Our New Approach to Comments

In an effort to encourage the same level of civil dialogue among Politics Daily’s readers that we expect of our writers – a “civilogue,” to use the term coined by PD’s Jeffrey Weiss – we are requiring commenters to use their AOL or AIM screen names to submit a comment, and we are reading all comments before publishing them. Personal attacks (on writers, other readers, Nancy Pelosi, George W. Bush, or anyone at all) and comments that are not productive additions to the conversation will not be published, period, to make room for a discussion among those with ideas to kick around. Please read our Help and Feedback section for more info.

Add a Comment

*0 / 3000 Character Maximum Comment Moderation Enabled. Your comment will appear after it is cleared by an editor.

Follow Politics Daily

  • Comics
robert-and-donna-trussell
CHAOS THEORY
Featuring political comics by Robert and Donna TrussellMore>>
  • Woman UP Video
politics daily videos
Weekly Videos
Woman Up, Politics Daily's Online Sunday ShowMore»
politics daily videos
TV Appearances
Showcasing appearances by Politics Daily staff and contributors.More>>