Nuclear Meltdowns Raised Fears, but Growing Energy Needs May Outweigh Them

Catastrophic accidents at power plants have heightened fears about the safety of nuclear energy, but environmentalists and others are giving it renewed attention as a way to fight global warming.

In March of 1979, the news of an accident at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania sent reporters rushing to the scene, while some 140,000 residents eventually fled from surrounding towns in fear and confusion.

The worst-case scenario was already familiar to Americans, thanks to Hollywood. It had recently released “The China Syndrome,” a thriller about an accident at a nuclear plant, and the film was playing in theaters across the country. Many viewers found it easy to conflate the disaster unfolding on the big screen with the real one taking place in Pennsylvania Dutch country.

Fortunately, the thing most feared – a complete meltdown of the reactor core and a massive release of radiation – never happened in the movie or at Three Mile Island.

But there were consequences. The accident was the worst at a commercial nuclear plant in U.S. history. It showed how quickly America’s nuclear dream could turn into nightmare. That lesson stuck. Scores of reactors were cancelled, and the nuclear industry in America fell into something like cold storage.

The dream, however, never really died. You might be surprised who’s taken up that cause today. The question is whether America is ready to embrace a nuclear future?

Related: Three Mile Island, and Nuclear Hopes and Fears by Clyde Haberman

Educators, click below for this video’s accompanying lesson plan and check out our Environmental Education Collection.

Sign up for our newsletter to receive resources related to this video.

Browse through dozens more lesson plans and videos here.

Previous versions
At Retro Report, we update our journalism as news unfolds. Here are the previous published versions of this story.
For teachers
  • Read transcript
  • Producer: Kit R. Roane
  • Update Producers: Sianne Garlick
  • Update Producers: Sandra McDaniel
  • Update Editor: Heru Muharrar

For Educators


This 11-minute video shows students how attitudes towards nuclear energy have changed since the 1950s, when its arrival was greeted with mass acclaim and its prospects seemed unlimited. The video clarifies why this optimism soured quickly when America experienced its first major nuclear accident at Three Mile Island in 1979, followed by the meltdown at Chernobyl in 1986. The nuclear industry gradually recovered, but was halted in 2011 following the Fukushima meltdown in Japan. In its discussion of the recent re-emergence of nuclear power as a means of mitigating climate change, the video sets up a classroom discussion about whether nuclear power’s benefits outweigh its costs.

Background reading

In March of 1979, the news of an accident at the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania punctured the promise of the Nuclear Age.

The accident then was the worst on record at a commercial nuclear power plant. Some 140,000 residents were evacuated. It took three weeks to bring the plant under control. And the subsequent cleanup took more than a decade and cost nearly $1 billion.

Overnight, it seemed, the promise sold in the 1950s of a brave, new world operating on energy from clean, efficient nuclear power plants, had turned into a nightmare of questions and worries.

The accident fed the rise of the anti-nuclear movement in America and around the globe. Many planned reactors were scrapped, while some existing ones were closed down.

But during the last decade, some environmentalists, worried about the continuing impact of fossil fuels on global warming, began looking to nuclear power as a solution.

By 2010, President Obama announced $8 billion in loan guarantees to break ground on the first new nuclear plant in 30 years.

Then, in 2011, an earthquake and tsunami rocked the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant in Japan, and triggered one of the worst nuclear accidents in history, and raised questions all over again.

The plant’s management has estimated it will take 30 to 40 years to clean up contaminated areas and decommission the plant.

Lesson Plan 1: Nuclear Power: From Three Mile Island to Fukushima

Students will learn how nuclear energy’s prospects were dimmed by accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima, and how modern concerns over climate change have sparked a complex debate about the future of nuclear energy.


Students will:

  • Learn about how nuclear power was promoted and regarded when it was first introduced.
  • Examine how accidents at Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima have affected public attitudes towards nuclear energy.
  • Learn how nuclear energy relates to the current debate over climate change.
Essential questions
  • How did the meltdown at Three Mile Island affect public opinion towards nuclear energy?
  • Before the meltdown at Three Mile Island, how was nuclear energy viewed? What claims were made about how nuclear energy would benefit humanity?
  • By 2010, how had public opinion changed about nuclear power? What steps did President Obama take to expand nuclear energy production?
  • In 2011, what combination of events led to the disaster at Fukushima Daiichi? How did the meltdown affect public perceptions of nuclear energy?
  • Common Core State Standards
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RH.11-12.7:Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
    • CCSS.ELA.LITERACY.RI.11-12.3:Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.
  • National Council for the Social Studies C3 Framework
    • D2.Geo.12.9-12. Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.
  • AP Environmental Science
    • Unit 6: Energy Resources & Consumption
    • Topic 6.6: Nuclear Power

      Skill 1.C: Explain environmental concepts or models in applied contexts.

      Big Idea: Energy Transfer (ENO).