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Three Mile Island: 25th Anniversary of The Worst Nuclear Accident in U.S. History

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Twenty-five years ago this week, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania malfunctioned, sparking a meltdown that resulted in the release of radioactivity. We speak with Susan Stranahan, the lead reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the disaster. [includes rush transcript]

It was the worst nuclear accident in US history. Twenty-five years ago this week, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania malfunctioned, sparking a meltdown that resulted in the release of radioactivity. In the pre-dawn hours of March 28, 1979, the cooling system of Three Mile Island’s Unit Two reactor malfunctioned, causing temperatures inside to skyrocket.

Early that morning, pumps feeding cooling water to the plant’s reactor failed, and 32,000 gallons of radioactive, superheated water spewed from a dodgy valve into the domed concrete reactor housing. Without water to cool them, more than half of the reactor’s 36,000 nuclear fuel rods ruptured.

Lieutenant Governor William Scranton appeared on local TV and warned residents to close their doors and windows and urged them to stay inside. Harrisburg Mayor Stephen Reed said the message to lock windows and stay indoors was akin to telling everyone to evacuate. Some estimate that well over 100,000 people fled Harrisburg and the surrounding areas.

The evening of March 28, 1979, famed news anchor Walter Cronkite opened his nightly newscast on CBS by calling the disaster “the first step in a nuclear nightmare.” For the next four days, the nation and the world feared a full-scale meltdown would follow.

The accident at Three Mile Island would quickly fuel the nuclear debate in this country that rages to this day.

  • * Containment: Life after Three Mile Island*, excerpt of documentary produced by Nick Poppy and Chris Boebel.
  • Susan Stranahan, lead reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the Three Mile Island accident. She now writes regularly on nuclear issues for Mother Jones.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to the reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” who led the Pulitzer Prize winning coverage of the Three Mile Island accident. She now writes regularly on nuclear issues for “Mother Jones.” Take us back to that day, Susan Stranahan.

SUSAN STRANAHAN: Listening to the experts brought back a lot of memories. I have been rereading coverage, both the stuff that dated 25 years ago, and coverage about the 25th anniversary of the accident, and all of the stories contain a lot of details. None of them contain quite the level of uncertainty and confusion and fear that pervaded. I think you got a sense of that from the excerpt from the documentary. But it was a very frightening time. I compared it in a piece that I wrote for the anniversary to the 9-11 catastrophe. Certainly it was not in any magnitude close to the tragedy of September 11, but at least that was, up until the 9-11 accident, certainly probably the most frightening time that many Americans had experienced, at least those in this part of the country.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, Susan, I remember being a cub reporter that year at “The Philadelphia Daily News,” so I wasn’t chosen by my editors to go to Three Mile Island, but can you talk about the changes that the reporters went through who were assigned, like yourself to cover the accident, and what emotional changes went through you deciding because I know there were some at the “Philadelphia Daily News” who refused to go. They said didn’t want to take the chance.

SUSAN STRANAHAN: I think there were 39 reporters from the “Philadelphia Inquirer” that covered the story. Most of them were out there. It was one of the great conflicts that journalists have whether they’re covering a disaster, a war, a fire, whatever. Half of you, your heart and your gut want you there because you know it’s the most amazing story. Your brain is telling you any rational person probably would not be here. The drama and the significance of the moment, I think, kept a lot of people working 24 hours a day seven days a week just to see how this whole thing would play out.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Susan Stranahan who led the Pulitzer Prize winning “Philadelphia Inquirer” coverage of the Three Mile Island accident 25 years ago. We’ll continue with her in just a minute.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! The War and Peace Report. Broadcasting on more than 220 Pacifica radio stations, NPR stations, public access TV stations, PBS stations, and on direct, Dish Network, Free Speech TV, Channel 9415, Satellite Television, and the largest public media collaboration in this country. If you want to get us on your TV or radio station, you can just call or go to our website and find out how at democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman here with Juan Gonzalez. In just a few minutes, we’ll be talking about the tenth anniversary of The Rwandan Massacre, The Rwandan Genocide. We’re also going to be talking about the firm that the U.S. Civilians now in Fallujah came from who were killed, but right now, we’re talking about the 25th anniversary of Three Mile Island, how it was covered and some comparisons to how 9-11 was covered. Susan Stranahan is with us, won the Pulitzer Prize for her reporting on Three Mile Island. What about the coverage, and how it was managed, and the role of one of the largest P.R. Firms in the world, Hill & Nolten?

SUSAN STRANAHAN: I had no contact with Hill & Nolton. Amy, I’m not sure what you were referring to there. The problem that we had as reporters was fairly complex. One, we’re not nuclear engineers so we were working with that handicap. We were also working with bureaucracies and experts that clearly didn’t have a clue what was going on. We were working with the utility companies that just would never tell the truth, would stand up and absolutely just lie day after day, hour after hour, and there was an excerpt of that on the documentary. So, we were basically thrown into a situation where you are doing basic reporting on an incredibly complicated problem. And that’s where good journalistic instincts come into play, and it was digging and asking questions and being skeptical, and going to as many people as you could possibly think of. I remember we used everybody from nuclear physicists and PhD’s down to high school science teachers that we would call up and say basically, quick, give us a crash course in x, y and z, and everyone worked together. There were some mistakes, as there always are when you are under that enormous amount of pressure, but I think in reading back, the stories given the limitations of time, given the amount of information that just was not there, and would not become available for years, the stories hold up quite well, both from a technical standpoint, as well as to just the total breakdown of the regulatory system in this country and corporate mentality of just no hesitancy to just lie through their teeth.

JUAN GONZALEZ: On that question, obviously there were several groups that should have exercised responsibility. There were the owners of Three Mile Island themselves. There were the public officials, and then the local public officials, and then there was the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. What was looking back on it, your assessment of how each of these groups functioned. You told us a little bit about the Three Mile Island owners. What about the public officials and the N.R.C.?

SUSAN STRANAHAN: The N.R.C. has always labored under a cloud of being a promoter of nuclear power rather than a regulator. In this instance, by and large, they fell back onto a rather defensive posture of not being as candid as they could have been in terms of the potential risks. But I think the bottom line on that, Juan, is that they didn’t know, either. They just didn’t know what was going on. They had worked under this mindset that something like this could not happen, therefore it, wasn’t happening. Yet it was. So, for hours and the early days they were as confused as those of us who were in the newsroom because this just wasn’t supposed to happen. There were two heroes in this. There were many, many heroes in this, but the two most prominent heroes were Governor Dick Thornburg, who remained calm and became a figure that the public trusted. He was a guy who was just pulling out his hair because he could not get any answer, so he felt responsibility for the health and safety of hundreds of thousands of Pennsylvanians. The other hero was Harold Denten who was eventually sent up from the N.R.C. on the orders of President Jimmy Carter, who was equally as upset and frustrated by his government’s inability to give a clear and straight answer to a very panicked public. Once both of those people, especially Harold Denten, were on the scene, at least there became a single voice speaking, and a voice that people, including members of the media, began to at least feel that they were getting a straight story. So, it was a breakdown of the bureaucracies, but there were two people that stepped to the plate and said, we will begin to try and do our jobs here and calm a panicked public.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Stranahan, can you talk about the comparison of coverage between Three Mile Island, 1979, 25 years ago, and then what happened on September 11.

SUSAN STRANAHAN: I wasn’t anywhere close to the September 11th sites either here in Pennsylvania or in Washington or in New York, and I didn’t have any direct role in it, so, I can’t speak firsthand on that. Obviously, there were terrible differences between them. There was no loss of life in Three Mile Island. In the Three Mile Island accident, the catastrophes of 9-11, the fact that this played out in front of the eyes of America was amazing. It was a terrorist attack, it wasn’t the failure of a piece of machinery, which was frightening in and of itself, this was a terrorist attack on America, so psychologically, it was much, much different. I think the coverage was fantastic. It offered many of the same challenges to the media because like a melting down reactor, nobody in the media ever thought in their right mind they would walk to work one morning and the next hour be out there covering a terrorist attack in downtown Manhattan with people leaping from buildings and planes crashing into… it’s one of those things that as a reporter… you get up in the morning and you always say, “Well, I don’t know what’s going to happen before the time I come home,” and there’s always the likelihood, god forbid, that this is the sort of thing that you’re going to be doing. So people jump in. They use their best skills. They know that their first obligation is to get the information out to the public, and they put themselves at risk in doing it, and I think that’s the comparison.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Also, since you have continued to write now on nuclear issues for “Mother Jones” and I’m wondering about your reaction hearing this week that a group of private companies wants to build the first nuclear power plant since… obviously none has been built in this country since Three Mile Island, and your thoughts having dealt with the issue again as Americans try to grapple with the question of the future of nuclear energy.

SUSAN STRANAHAN: I’m not surprised. You look at the forces that are at work here. You have got energy prices soaring. You have got pressure to drill in The Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. You have got clean air concerns. You have got a very friendly administration in The White House that is very pro-nuclear. The Cheney Energy Plan that was put forth was called for building a thousand new nuclear plants by 2020, which averages something like one a week. That’s not going to happen. But I’m not surprised. I would think if there are a group of investors that wanted to put up the capital to do it, then it probably will go forward. My concerns are that none of the issues that existed in 1979 with nuclear power have been resolved. We still don’t know what to do with the waste it produces. We still don’t have a technology that we can trust 100%. The line I always use is that the ultimate safety plan for a nuclear reactor is a mass evacuation. And despite assurances that the plants are safer and the utility companies are better run, I’m not sure I buy into that. There’s an awful lot of pressure to cut costs with… and utility companies now with energy deregulation. The N.R.C. is turning over more and more of the regulatory authority of the safety inspections to the companies themselves, and the reactors that we have in this country are getting near the end of their useful lives, and the N.R.C. has indicated a willingness to extend the operating licenses another 20 years, which were meant to last for 40 years, so we’re extending them for another 20 at the same time that there are economic pressures that keep the utilities from probably making as many major repairs as the public might like to have them do. So, I’m not surprised that there’s someone out there that’s going to propose it. I would be very interested, if ultimately it succeeds.

AMY GOODMAN: Susan Stranahan, I want to thank you very much for being with us won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on the Three Mile Island disaster 25 years ago was reporting for “The Philadelphia Inquirer” now covers nuclear issues for “Mother Jones.” You are listening to Democracy Now!

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