Worth Reading: 'The Legacy of Three Mile Island'

They say that life imitates art. Sometimes this maxim proves eerily true. On March 16, 1979, Americans poured into movie theaters to watch an exciting new thriller called The China Syndrome. The plot? Human error leads to a catastrophic nuclear disaster at the fictional Southern California "Ventana" power plant.

book cover “TMI 25 years later”Emily Wiley

Penn State co-authors remember the accident at Three Mile Island.

In a memorable line of dialogue, an energy official tells the intrepid reporter played by Jane Fonda that an explosion at Ventana "could render an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable." Twelve days later, the nation awoke to news that a nuclear accident had occurred at the Three Mile Island power plant outside of Harrisburg.

The plots of the film and the real-life incident were almost identical. In both, engineers misread water levels and presume the reactor core is being cooled properly, when in fact there is no water covering the core at all.

How close did we actually come to a "China Syndrome" melt-down? "It is quite possible that in another 20 minutes or so, the lower portion of the reactor vessel would have melted, releasing hot molten fuel onto the floor of the containment building, posing an even greater, possibly uncontrollable release of radiation into the environment."

This is the frank assessment of Bonnie A. Osif, Anthony J. Baratta, and Thomas W. Conkling. Professor emeritus of nuclear engineering at Penn State, Anthony Barratta assisted with the decontamination and recovery project at TMI. Conkling and Osif are engineering librarians who maintain Penn State's extensive collection of TMI-related videotapes, photographs, and reports.

Together, they have co-authored TMI 25 Years Later: The Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Accident and Its Impact (The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2004). Their aim was to provide an objective assessment to counterbalance the "confusing, contradictory, or missing information" that has long plagued public discussion of the accident.

The book has a clear and linear organization, beginning with the basic principles of nuclear energy production, and proceeding to a detailed discussion of the accident's timeline, causes, and a clean-up process that lasted a decade and cost a billion dollars. Readers learn some lesser known details about the de-fueling of the crippled Unit Two reactor, such as the discovery of microorganisms flourishing in the contaminated core water. This "unanticipated event" interrupted the clean-up schedule until a solution could be found. (Hydrogen peroxide, dubbed "bug kill," was eventually used to eliminate them.)

The authors also discuss the psychological and physical effects of the accident on the local community. Some of the TMI studies have yielded inconclusive and perplexing results. For instance, a University of Pittsburgh study of data collected over nineteen years on the "cause-specific mortality" of people living in the vicinity of TMI suggested that "increased background radiation" correlates to a somewhat higher risk for blood and lymph cancers, as well as breast cancer.

However, "the researchers concluded that mortality statistics provided no consistent evidence that radioactivity released during the accident had a significant impact on the mortality of the people in the cohort."

Surprisingly, the same study indicates that an elevated mortality rate in the TMI group was "principally due to heart disease, a disease not associated with radiation."

Is there a connection between stress and heart disease in the case of TMI-area residents? Several studies of this population indicate a "slightly higher stress level that has remained elevated for years." These people viewed TMI as "not only an acute crisis...but also as a long-term, chronic threat." Researchers concluded that "stress—even minor levels of chronic stress—as found in TMI residents—may have significant health effects over time."

In one of the book's most thought-provoking sections, the authors examine the impact of media coverage on public reactions to the accident. They write, "Looking back over twenty-five years, it is easy to forget that cable news networks did not exist...Most people did not have computers, never mind Internet connections."

The authors remind us that, in 1979, news "was provided by radio, the three network news programs...and the newspapers. Reporting often was not live but filmed earlier for evening broadcast." Reporters also "lacked scientific and technical training" to accurately interpret and report on the accident as it unfolded.

More than twenty-five years later, "an entire generation may know little about the nerve-wracking days following the accident or the years of the cleanup." Osif, Baratta and Conkling attribute this to the accident being "contained, controlled, and cleaned up with so little long-term effect." Yet, for these authors, the passing of time doesn't diminish the "far-reaching legacy" of Three Mile Island in a wide range of areas—"scientific, technical, philosophical, economic, political, and personal."

"The lessons learned," they write, "have helped shape our world."

Bonnie A. Osif is the engineering reference and instruction librarian at the engineering library, 325 Hammond Building University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-3697; Anthony J. Baratta is professor emeritus of nuclear engineering. 814-865-0038; Thomas W. Conkling is head of the engineering library, 325 Hammond Building, University Park, PA; 814 865 3698; 25 Years Later: The Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant Accident and Its Impact was published in 2004 by The Pennsylvania State University Press.

Last Updated March 30, 2005