The lessons of Three Mile Island

The cooling towers of Three Mile Island's Unit 1 Nuclear Power Plant pour steam into the sky in Middletown, Pa., Tuesday, March 17, 2009. Three Mile Island's Unit 2 was the scene of the nations worst commercial nuclear accident on March 28, 1979. Three decades later, fears of an atomic catastrophe have been largely supplanted by fears about global warming, easing nuclear energy into the same sentence as wind and solar power.
AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Japan's nuclear crisis is conjuring up images of the worst nuclear power plant accident in U.S. history, at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island in 1979.

One of the reasons it terrified Americans was that it came right after the movie "The China Syndrome" was released, which was about a possible nuclear meltdown.

As CBS News correspondent Betty Nguyen noted on "The Early Show on Saturday Morning," Three Mile Island was built in the 1960s, at the height of the expansion of nuclear power.

Blanket Coverage: Disaster in Japan

But a pre-dawn accident at the plant in 1979 marked the beginning of a change in the world's view of nuclear energy.

And, as Richard Thornburgh, the governor of Pennsylvania at the time, pointed out today to "Saturday Morning" co-anchor Rebecca Jarvis, there are "eerie similarities" between that accident and what's going on at Japan's Fukushima plant - and lessons taken from the handling of Three Mile Island might prove useful for Japanese officials now.

Most important, he said: Get the facts straight and get them out to the public that way.

At 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, a mechanical failure at the Three Mile Island station in Dauphin County, Pa. enabled nuclear reactor coolant to escape, causing the core to overheat. The situation nearly ignited a catastrophe.

The following day, efforts to stabilize the reactor failed. And by day three, it became clear that radioactive gases had accumulated within the reactor, and leaked into the atmosphere.

Thornburgh advised residents to take safety precautions, telling "pregnant women and preschool-age children to leave the area within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility until further notice."

But it became clear that, as the, legendary CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite said, "We are faced with the remote but very real possibility of a nuclear meltdown at the three mile island atomic power plant."

In the confusion after the disaster, an estimated 140,000 people evacuated.

For ten days, state and federal officials struggled to understand the situation and control what was officially termed a partial core meltdown in unit two of Three Mile Island. The reactor never recovered. And cleanup lasted into the 1990s.

Reactor two was permanently shut down, and hazardous materials removed off site.

Reactor number one received approval to restart in 1985, and has been licensed to operate until April of 2034.

Thornburgh recalled for Jarvis that, "When I first heard about the accident at Three Mile Island, I knew that there was no such thing as a minor accident at a nuclear reactor. And we took steps during the intervening ten days to try to prevent a meltdown, and to carry out as much as we could in the way of a plan to protect the people of central Pennsylvania. Serious business, indeed.

"One of the biggest challenges in these situations is to get accurate information, and we had a great deal of difficulty in trying to pin down the facts. The first day, we kind of took what was handed to us by the utility that ran the reactor. But very soon, it became apparent that they had misinformed us and we had to look elsewhere. (It) really wasn't until the arrival of ... a nuclear engineer who was dispatched to the plant at my request by President Jimmy Carter that we had an authentic source of information that could enable us to make decisions. Very frustrating. "

Jarvis observed that Japanese officials have been criticized for relying too heavily on the Tokyo Electric Company (TEPCO) for information about Fukushima and giving the public information that has at times been questioned.

"There's an eerie similarity between what's happened in Japan and what happened at Three Mile Island," Thornburgh said, "and that certainly is one of them. The difficulty of getting facts, and the need to cross-examine every possible source to get the best version of the facts you can. I don't want to judge what the Japanese have done, because I'm not there and don't know the facts myself about what they're doing. But clearly, the principle need in any one of these situations is to get reliable facts. You could be the best decision-maker in the world, but if you're proceeding on the basis of inaccurate facts, it doesn't do much good."

Keeping panic to a minimum, he said, came in part because, "We tried to be forthcoming to the public. If we, as I said, in the first day reported inaccurate facts, we immediately tried to rectify that by saying that we had done so. And I think that helped a little bit, because people aren't used to seeing public figures say they made a mistake. So in that instance, I think we just kept on plugging to try to get accurate facts, and dealing with a variety of experts who came to us with their opinions.

"I think that the most important thing is, as I've stated, to keep plugging to get the facts right. Because, if you don't have the facts, and you don't report them accurately to the people, you're going to lose their confidence and lose your own credibility, and that's a very fragile commodity during an emergency like this."