Millions of Americans are watching on TV the burgeoning crisis at Japan’s Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear power plant, where technicians are desperately struggling to control multiple nuclear reactors that have gone haywire in the wake of a cataclysmic 9.0 earthquake. But those of us who are old enough can remember a strikingly similar moment almost exactly 32 years ago, when TV viewers in Japan and elsewhere turned their gaze to a frightening nuclear nightmare in our own country. The breakdown of the cooling system and subsequent partial meltdown of the Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant, about 10 miles outside of Harrisburg, PA, was a worldwide news event; it evoked an outpouring of anxiety, sympathy and outrage that’s similar to what we are now feeling, except that it was directed toward us.
In Japan, the reaction to TMI was particularly charged, given both the nation’s traumatic experience with the effects of radiation at the end of World War II, and Japanese officials’ controversial plan to build scores of nuke plants to solve Japan’s dependence upon imported energy. As this UPI article from the week after the accident describes, protesters besieged the Japanese Natural Resources and Energy Agency office, holding agency officials hostage overnight when their demand for a meeting with the agency’s head was not immediately met. A week later, as this dispatch reports, the Japanese government responded to public pressure by ordering the temporary shutdown of the Ohi No. 1 plant in central Honshu, about 220 miles southwest of Tokyo simply because it was equipped with U.S.-made pressurized water reactor technology, the same sort (though by a different maker) as TMI used. “Human errors cannot be avoided,” a Japanese official explained.
Three decades later, that remark would seem eerily prescient. The situation at Fukushima-Daiichi, where multiple reactors are out of control, is far more desperate than TMI, serious as that breakdown was. The Japanese plant is roughly the same age as TMI but it is equipped with boiling-water reactors, which are less stable than the pressurized water technology that TMI’s Unit 2 employed. To compound problems, the containments at Fukushima-Daiichi are smaller and possibly less dependable than the one that prevented a major release of radiation at TMI Unit 2, even after nearly half the unit’s nuclear core suffered meltdown and molten radioactive material flowed down to pool on the floor.MIT’s Technology Review reports that the radiation levels measured in the air above the Fukushima-Daiichi plant on March 17 reached 250 millisieverts per hour. That is more than 20 times the rate measured above TMI by a helicopter during that crisis.
Both the TMI and Fukushima-Daiichi events, however, share the same tense, chaotic, disillusioning vibe. In March 1979, the press and public quickly grew to distrust the utility company and state government officials who blithely assured everyone early in the TMI crisis that the incident was minor and posed no risk. (For more on that, here’s an hour-by-hour chronology of the official response to the TMI crisis, compiled by the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics. At a massive anti-nuclear rally in Washington DC in the spring of 1979, I heard author Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.—a former employee of General Electric, a maker of nuclear technology—take the podium and denounce the nuclear industry as a bunch of “filthy little monkeys” that was threatening to destroy the planet.
Similarly, there’s a swelling backlash today toward TEPCO, the corporate operator of Fukushima-Daiichi—which, as this article from Australia’s Business Spectator website details, repeatedly has faced official accusations of falsifying safety data. Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who may have learned from TMI the importance of deflecting public outrage, allowed a reporter to overhear him berating TEPCO officials. (“What the hell is going on?” he reportedly shouted at them.)
Will that get Kan off the hook? I doubt it. If TMI taught the world anything, it was that we should think twice about trusting that people in authority would give us the truth, or that the government would be adequately prepared to cope with disasters. After TMI’s Unit 2 raged out of control, as the University of Pittsburgh chronology details, U.S. Health, Education and Welfare secretary Joseph Califano, the nation’s top health official, discovered that the federal government did not have an adequate emergency supply of potassium iodide, a drug that prevents radioactivity releases from affecting the thyroid. Califano hastily searched and finally found a company able to supply 250,000 one-ounce bottles, which was roughly enough to protect everyone within 10 miles of TMI. But the shipments didn’t start arriving until Sunday, April 1, when the crisis already was in its fifth day. (Fortunately, the Japanese government was a bit better stocked 32 years later.)
But in the wake of TMI, we lost faith in more than just our leaders and public servants. TMI rattled the long-held American belief that technological advances created by Big Science continually would improve our living standards and propel us toward a utopian future of limitless abundance, in which electricity would be “too cheap to meter,” as Lewis Strauss, Atomic Energy Commission chairman in the 1950s, once put it. (It should be noted that he actually was referring to the potential of hydrogen fusion, not nuclear fission reactors.) Instead, we found ourselves troubled by the realization that modern civilization might be dependent—or endangered—by sprawling, complex gadgetry that few of us even remotely understood, let alone knew how to monitor or control. It was an unease exacerbated by the coincidental release several days before the accident of a Hollywood thriller, The China Syndrome, in which TV journalists and a nuclear scientist discover an obscure but potentially menacing technical glitch in a nuclear plant that officials are trying to cover up. TMI helped nurture a new, jaded culture in which we are suspicious of technological big fixes and paradigm shifts. It also has instilled in us the fear of what science philosopher Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “Black Swan” situations—that is, that extremely improbable events do sometimes actually occur, and that their consequences can be all the more catastrophic because we are unprepared for them.
But the legacy of TMI is a mixed bag. Distrust of authority and technology and focus upon Black Swan scenarios can be prudent and foster self-preservation, but it can also lead to inertia and paralysis. At a time in which we’re facing a slow-motion global disaster due to climate change, the TMI mindset may hinder us in finding solutions that will stave off future catastrophe.