The Psycho-Meltdown
at Three Mile Island

On March 28, 1979, a sequence of failures at a nuclear power plant in Middletown, a small town near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, began with an early-morning glitch in a cooling system, caused melting of some of the uranium in a nuclear reactor, and resulted in a leak of radiation into the atmosphere. Later that day CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite described the breakdown as "the first step in a nuclear nightmare." He stated: "[A] nuclear safety group said that radiation inside the plant is at eight times the deadly level; so strong that after passing through a three-foot-thick concrete wall, it can be measured a mile away." Around the time of Mr. Cronkite's broadcast, engineers and an emergency response team at the facility had the situation well in hand.

In the days that followed, however, the public's fear mounted as activists and the media fed it with references to the political thriller The China Syndrome, a fictional film released that month about a possible meltdown. On March 30 Mr. Cronkite said on his broadcast: "We are faced with the remote but very real possibility of a nuclear meltdown at the Three Mile Island atomic-power plant. The danger faced by man for tampering with natural forces, a theme familiar from the myths of Prometheus to the story of Frankenstein, moved closer to fact from fancy through the day." The New York Times warned of a "Credibility Meltdown" and compared the safety claims of TMI officials and the "safety claims" of fictitious characters in The China Syndrome. The media gave the public the misimpression that the hourglass cooling towers at TMI with their plumes were nuclear reactors spewing, in the words of newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, "radioactive steam."

Nobel laureate George Wald and other antinuclear activists flew to Harrisburg for the paradoxical purpose of encouraging everyone else to leave. On March 30 in response to a conversational remark from the chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), Richard Thornburgh, then the governor of Pennsylvania, recommended that all pregnant women and preschoolers living within five miles of the facility evacuate.

Shortly afterwards researchers began trying to determine whether TMI events had caused health problems in the community directly affected by those events. There have been many such studies, and the only TMI-related health problems found have been psychologic. In an early study, agents of the NRC, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare concluded that the possibility of extra risks to the population outside the facility due to the TMI radiation leak was "minimal", and that the projected number of all extra instances of illness due to the TMI radiation leak in persons living within 50 miles of the facility -over their entire lives- was "approximately two."

In October 1979 the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, chaired by Dartmouth College president John G. Kemeny, reported that, for persons living within 50 miles of the facility, the extra radiation dose due to the TMI leak amounted to about one percent of the radiation absorbed each year from all other sources (virtually all of which are natural); and that, for persons living within 5 miles of the facility, the extra radiation dose amounted to about 10 percent of the radiation absorbed annually from all other sources. The Kemeny report further stated: "On the basis of present scientific understanding, the radiation doses received by the general population as a result of radiation exposure released during the accident were so small, that there will be no detectable additional cases of cancer, developmental abnormalities or genetic ill health as a consequence of the accident at TMI."

The Kemeny commission did not, however, come up empty-handed regarding health effects. According to its report, the "major health effect of the accident" apparently was short-term distress among power-plant employees at TMI and among persons who had been living within 20 miles of the island. The stress among TMI-vicinity residents probably stemmed partly from disagreements within families over whether the situation warranted leaving the area.

The conclusions of the "Report of the Governor's Commission on Three Mile Island" were the same as the Kemeny report's conclusions. In a study published in 1981, G. A. Tokuhata and E. Digon concluded that there had not been any post-accident excess fetal and infant deaths in the TMI area. They found in a study published a few years later that, in the five years that followed the breakdown at TMI, residents within 20 miles of the facility had had "fewer cancer deaths than expected" (emphasis in original).

Later studies have confirmed findings from early studies on the possible health effects of the TMI accidents. A governmental task force examined media treatment of the critical events at TMI shortly after their occurrence and found that reporters covering those events "knew shockingly little about nuclear power and compounded their ignorance by focusing too narrowly on worst-case scenario questions."

The worst effects of the TMI chain of events were not atomic. The safety systems at the TMI facility performed well. The radiation leak was minor, and this radiation has had no proven effect on anyone's health. The "nuclear nightmare" of which Mr. Cronkite spoke became actual only in the sense that the public's knowledge of the leak - thanks to imaginings fueled by activists and the media - was very distressing. Indeed, according to the March 29, 1999, edition of U.S. News & World Report, Harold Denton, an NRC official during the crisis, suspects that post-traumatic stress may have been the source of mala-dies reported in connection with the crisis. Moreover, governmental and economic responses to the breakdown at TMI and to the public's apprehension, plus media sensationalism, have crippled the nuclear industry in the United States, uselessly.


The ACSH special report
"Three Mile Island: A 20th Anniversary Remembrance" is viewable at:

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