Thirty years ago the nuclear incident at Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, hit the news. I was a college student at the time, and I recall that the stories about the incident had a very panicked, sci-fi quality to them. The nuclear core could reach extraordinarily high temperatures and melt down, burning through the concrete bed and tunneling into the bowels of the Earth, to spread radiation everywhere! Or, radioactive steam could spew from the cooling towers and be carried on the winds, to spread radiation everywhere! Or maybe both of those things could occur and other bad things, too! The TV reports always seemed to show the worried reporter a great distance from the Three Mile Island facilities, with the massive cooling towers looming ominously in the background. Given the alarmist nature of the reports, you almost expected the reporter to suddenly grow a third arm or develop superpowers. Of course, none of that happened — and it is not even clear if what did happen had any discernible health-related effects on anyone exposed to any emissions from the Three Mile Island facility.
Viewed from the perspective allowed by the passage of three decades, it seems clear that the Three Mile Island incident had good and bad effects. No doubt it caused government regulators and industry groups to examine nuclear facility procedures and processes and to introduce additional safety steps, devices, and checks. In the 30 years since Three Mile Island hit the news, there has not been any significant nuclear power mishap in the United States (Chernobyl is another story, of course). At the same time, the quasi-hysterical reaction to the incident made such an impact on those who lived through it that many people have an almost instinctive belief that nuclear power is extraordinarily dangerous — notwithstanding the safety experience of European countries, which rely much more heavily on nuclear power than we do, or that of the U.S. Navy, which relies on nuclear generators to power many of its warships and submarines. As a result, in the United States we have built very few nuclear power facilities in the years since Three Mile Island.
If our country hopes to move away from dependence on foreign oil and fossil fuels for its energy, nuclear power clearly must play an increasing role. Perhaps this 30th anniversary will cause people to take a new and dispassionate look at the Three Mile Island incident and nuclear power power generally, and we can move forward with a more mature approach to our power generation needs that welcomes nuclear power as part of the solution.