TEXT ON SCREEN: March 28, 1979
ARCHIVAL (ABC, 11-14-88):NEWS REPORT: Civil defense officials are urging you to take cover.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-1-79):ANNOUNCEMENT: Please stay indoors with your windows closed.
NARRATION: In March of 1979, Americans awoke to a nuclear nightmare.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-30-79):WALTER CRONKITE: The potential is there for the ultimate risk of a meltdown at the Three Mile Island atomic power plant outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-1-79):ANCHOR: In the worst case a massive amount of radioactive material would be spewed into an area of 5 to 10 miles in diameter and 20 miles downwind.
NARRATION: The president tried to quell the panic
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-1-79):NEWS REPORT: The presidents trip here was a dramatic gesture.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 4-1-79):PRESIDENT JIMMY CARTER: Within in the next few days, important decisions will be made.
NARRATION:but the accident had fundamentally changed the nuclear power industry.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 4-7-79):PROTESTOR: What we have to do is call for an end to the nuclear age in its entirety.
NARRATION: Today, decades after Three Mile Island cast a shadow on Americas atomic dream, could nuclear power be the answer to fighting global warming?
MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: Well if we dont have nuclear, its gonna be a much hotter planet.
NARRATION: One morning, Nuclear Regulatory Commissioner Victor Gilinsky received some startling news. Mysteriously high radiation and pressure readings were coming from a new nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island.
VICTOR GILINSKY (FORMER N.R.C. COMMISSIONER): The technical experts tell you, Theres gotta be something wrong with the meters. Gotta be not working properly. Well, it turned out the meters were right.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, 3-28-79):ANCHOR: An accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, which is located on an island in the Susquehanna River, ten miles from Harrisburg.
ARCHIVAL (NBC, 3-28-79):ANCHOR: The cooling system broke down this morning, some radioactive steam escaped into the air, radiation was detected a mile away from the plant.
NARRATION: The plants controlled nuclear reaction was supposed to create steam that spun a turbine generating electricity. But on this day, a sudden cascade of problems left the reactors operators scrambling to regain control. Some officials began to fear the worst. Molten uranium melting through the bottom of the reactor. What scientists have dubbed the China Syndrome, as if the fuel could melt through to the other side of the world.
A new blockbuster movie had already primed the public for such a catastrophe.
ARCHIVAL (THE CHINA SYNDROME, 1979):The China Syndrome. Only a handful of people know what it really means and they are scared.
VICTOR GILINSKY: There was a tremendous scare that the reactor could just blow up.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 3-30-79):NEWS REPORT: The simplest solution, having a man open that valve to release the trapped gas is impossible, heat and radioactivity would kill anyone making that attempt.
NARRATION: Gilinsky still cant believe one of the ideas floated.
VICTOR GILINSKY: It was suggested to my amazement and horror that we send in terminal cancer patients. I remember the very distinct feeling that senior people are giving you advice that, which if you took, would send you right off the cliff. The idea of the men in white lab coats, who were supposed to know, and theyre standing there scratching their heads. That, I think shook the public.
ARCHIVAL (CBS, 5-1-79):JOHN HERBEIN (METROPOLITAN EDISON): I dont know why we need to tell you each and every thing that we do.
ARCHIVAL (ABC):NEWS REPORT: Its a lot worse than what they are telling us. Typical lies. They ought to close all those nuclear power plants down.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWSs, 3 -30-79):NEWS REPORT: They have heard so much contradictory technical jargon from officials that the first casualty of this accident may have been trust.
NARRATION: On the third day, high radiation readings of controlled release of gasses from the plant caused the governor to call for an evacuation of pregnant women and children.
ARCHIVAL (3-30-79):DICK THORNBURGH (PENNSYLVANIA GOVERNOR): I am advising those who are particularly susceptible to the effects of any radiation to leave the area within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility.
NARRATION: Three Mile Island was not the future that was envisioned when nuclear power emerged decades earlier as an alternative to coal-fired electricity.
ARCHIVAL (DISNEY-TOMORROWLAND, 1957):ANNOUNCER: Tomorrowland the promise of things to come!GENIE: Here with my right hand I give you the magic fire of the atom!
ARCHIVAL (A IS FOR ATOM, 1953):Here in fact is the answer to a dream as old as man himself, a giant of limitless power at mans command.
SPENCER R. WEART (AUTHOR THE RISE OF NUCLEAR FEAR): The complex of images around nuclear power is quite unique. Theres nothing outside religious imagery that is so strong, so pervasive and involves so many hooks.
ARCHIVAL (A IS FOR ATOM, 1953):Nuclear energy isnt waiting to help people everywhere in some brave new world of the future. The peaceful atom is here and now.
SPENCER R. WEART: Nuclear scientists had all kinds of visions of a new society energy would be practically free. Wed have nuclear-powered flying cars. The deserts would be conquered. Wed build cities in the arctic wastes, there was an explosion of wonderful ideas about how things could be improved.
NARRATION: All of this had been part of a concerted effort following World War II to dull the image of the atom as a tool for war.
ARCHIVAL (ATOMIC ENERGY CAN BE A BLESSING):ANNOUNCER: Yes, this is atomic energy at work. Not as a force for evil, but as a force for good.PRIEST: Just think of all the things that can be done.
NARRATION: The pitch worked. Increasingly powerful reactors, like those at Three Mile Island, were scaled up quickly with regulators telling the public that nuclear powers safety was assured.
ARCHIVAL (STREAMLINE):The plant is operated by highly trained people who are assisted in their efforts by the most sophisticated technologies available.
VICTOR GILINSKY: They really believed that major accidents were essentially impossible.
NARRATION: Twelve days after the sirens of Three Mile Island turned the communities around the plant into ghost towns, all public advisories were finally rescinded and the 140,000 people who had fled were told to return home.
VICTOR GILINSKY: It was only realized how severe it was five years later, when they opened up the reactor and discovered half the fuel had melted. Which went way beyond anything that anyone imagined before.
NARRATION: No one died at Three Mile Island and in the end it was never proven that the radiation releases created any lasting harm. But the meltdown itself could have been much worse were it not for several timely discoveries, including technicians realizing a crucial pressure valve had been stuck open, an initial contributor to the meltdown.
VICTOR GILINSKY: It would eventually have eaten its way through the bottom of the pressure vessel, and from then on, all bets are off. Its kind of like youre beyond anything thats been studied.
NARRATION: The cleanup after the accident took more than a decade and cost almost 1 billion dollars. And despite a host of reforms to shore up nuclear safety, the lesson to many seemed clear.
ARCHIVAL (CBS EVENING NEWS, 4-26-97):REPRESENTATIVE EDWARD MARKEY: Nuclear power is dead as an industry in the United States. It died at Three Mile Island.
NARRATION: And then seven years later the world watched as the worst fears of Three Mile Island then came to fruitionwhen the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant in the Soviet Union had a nuclear accident.
ARCHIVAL (ABC NEWS, NIGHTLINE, 4-29-86):TED KOPPEL: The danger may be escalating, its an atomic fire and the Soviets cant contain it.
ARCHIVAL (BBC NEWSNIGHT, 4-29-86):PETER SNOW: It does now seem likely, that sometime in the last couple of days, theres been perhaps the worst accident in the short history of the worlds nuclear power industry.
NARRATION: The meltdown was massive, killing 31 people and injuring many more. Even with decades of cleanup costing approximately $68 billion, experts say the surrounding area will be uninhabitable for up to 20,000 years.
SPENCER WEART: Chernobyl did for Europe what Three Mile Island did for the United States. And one result was to not to end, but to slow down the deployment of nuclear energy in Europe.
NARRATION: In the U.S., it took more than three decades and promises of new safeguards for support to build again for nuclear power as an energy source.
But then, in 2011, the nuclear industry suffered yet another setback.
ARCHIVAL (ABC News, 3-13-11):CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: First an earthquake, then a tsunami, then a nuclear disaster.
ARCHIVAL (ABC, GOOD MORNING AMERICA, 3-13-11):ANCHOR: The Japanese government now says two reactors are in partial meltdown and four more are at risk.
NARRATION: The disaster at Fukushima which culminated in three simultaneous reactor meltdowns, and a substantial release of radiation heightened the unease surrounding nuclear power once more.
ARCHIVAL (PBS NEWSHOUR, 3-23-11):MILES OBRIEN: Before the meltdown in Japan, American support for nuclear power as an alternative to fossil fuels had reached a new high. But that support appears to be evaporating quickly.
NARRATION: Today, concerns about global warming are taking center stage, causing even some environmentalists to rethink their opposition to nuclear power.
MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: I think its fair to say that the concerns that young environmentalists have are overwhelmingly around living in a hotter world and that those pretty seriously outweigh their concerns around nuclear.
NEW NARRATION: Environmentalist Michael Shellenberger advocates for nuclear power as a way to combat climate change.
MICHAEL SHELLENBERGER: Just even a few years ago, if you pointed out to people that nuclear is really good for the environment in a whole set of ways you know, no air pollution and no carbon emissions, people wouldve just laughed or looked at you like you were crazy or were a stooge of the industry or something.
NARRATION: Today, Nuclear power supplies 19 percent of the U.S.s electricity, while another 20 percent comes from renewable, but weather-dependent energy sources such as solar, wind and hydropower. Non-renewable fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas provide the rest.
The Biden administration has set a goal of 100 percent carbon-free electricity by 2035.
ARCHIVAL (IAEA, 9-22-21):JENNIFER GRANHOLM (U.S. ENERGY SECRETARY): We are at code red for humanity, and nuclear energy is essential to confronting climate change.
SPENCER WEART: Global warming is an extremely severe problem. Do we need solar energy? Sure we do. And other renewables? By all wind power and so forth? Absolutely, we need them. Thats not enough. We also need nuclear power. We need all of the above.
NARRATION: Nuclear energy opponents say too much danger remains, citing safety, cost and the ability to dispose of radioactive waste. But while memories of past disasters linger, our constantly growing energy needs may overshadow them.
VICTOR GILINSKY: You have to step back. It is the first major, new energy source since fire. It is an impressive thing. The question is, is it good enough? Do we need it now? And, do we want this technology?