The single most terrifying event that suddenly and dramatically forced Americans to question their faith in U.S. technology, big business, and government regulation occurred on March 28, 1979. A nuclear reactor at the Three Mile Island electric generating plant, near the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, lost coolant water, thereby initiating a partial meltdown of the reactor’s intensely radioactive core.
Nuclear energy had long been a subject of controversy in the United States. During the late 1950s and early 1960s, the peaceful use of the atom was seen as the key to supplying cheap and virtually limitless energy to the nation. But by the 1970s, environmentalists and others were questioning the safety of atomic power, which was also proving far more expensive than had been originally projected. By the end of the decade, a beleaguered nuclear power industry was on the defensive. By remarkable coincidence, just before the Three Mile Island accident, a popular movie dramatized the consequences (and attempted corporate cover-up) of a nuclear power plant accident. The movie was called The China Syndrome, an allusion to the theory that a full-scale meltdown of a reactor’s core would burn so intensely that the material would, in effect, sear its way deep into the earth—clear down to China, experts grimly joked.
The movie was very much on people’s minds when a shaken Pennsylvania governor Richard Thornburgh appeared on television to warn residents to remain indoors and advised pregnant women to evacuate the area. The partial meltdown had already released an amount of radioactive gases into the atmosphere.
Although evidence exists that plant officials improperly delayed notifying public authorities of the accident, backup safety features in the plant did successfully prevent a major disaster of the proportions of the Chernobyl meltdown on April 26, 1986, in the Soviet Ukraine, which would kill 31 persons immediately and untold additional numbers later. Nevertheless, Three Mile Island seemed to many people just one more in a long string of terrible failures of American commerce, technology, and know-how.