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How the Three Mile Island Accident Was Made Even Worse By a Chaotic Response

Credit: Penn State

Forty years ago, on March 28, 1979, there was a partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, marking the most serious U.S. commercial nuclear power plant accident to date.

Today, the response to the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis is considered a textbook example of what not to do during an emergency. But before 4:00 a.m. on the morning of March 28, 1979, nobody had made adequate plans as to how to respond to an accident at the nuclear power plant.

That morning, a chain reaction began inside one of Three Mile Island’s nuclear reactors. Due to a constellation of mechanical and human errors, the reactor’s automatic cooling system didn’t cool down the reactor as expected, and a partial meltdown occurred. For hours, the radioactive core of the reactor was left uncovered, causing radiation levels to spike throughout the facility.

The disaster itself was made worse by human error. And the botched public response was no different. During the tense days following the accident, conflicting reports and recommendations made it hard to know what to believe. Was the area on the verge of a China Syndrome -style catastrophe, or was it just fine to stay at home?

“What to do?” wrote the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette . “Lock up and leave? Wait and hope for the best? Wait to be told to evacuate? On a broader level, the incident on Three Mile Island, once a recreation area, has disrupted every aspect of civil and private life in a five-county area around the state capital.”

But what residents may not have realized was that there were no evacuation plans. “Plans to evacuate [nearby residents] were made during the TMI accident,” noted the Federal Emergency Management Agency in a 1980 report on the disaster. As conflicting reports continued to circulate, local agencies made reactive plans they had no idea if they would have to carry out.

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How the Three Mile Island Accident Was Made Even Worse By a Chaotic Response History

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