Published: Mar 28, 2009
30 Years Of What If: Three Mile Island Revisited
by Bonnie Pfister

Three Mile Island Revisited - One spring day 30 years ago, Mary Osborn rose early to share breakfast with her husband before he left for an out-of-town construction job. At his car just before 6 a.m., he called her name.

"He said, 'Come out here and smell the air.'" Osborn recalled. "Sometimes we could smell the chocolate from the Hershey's factory, or the cows up on the hill." She walked outside and was struck immediately by a sharp metallic tang.

"The air was still. There were no birds. Usually at that time of year, they're chattering away in the morning," Osborn said. "All we could smell and taste was metal."

Seven miles away on the Susquehanna River, the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history was underway at Three Mile Island. On March 28, 1979, worker mistakes compounded equipment malfunctions, triggering a partial meltdown of the reactor core in Unit Two. For five frightening days, state officials, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the plant's owner, Metropolitan Edison Corp., struggled to halt the meltdown.

Confusing and contradictory statements to the public sowed fear, which gave way to panic. Already on edge from the debut days earlier of "The China Syndrome," a film about a nuclear plant disaster, about 200,000 residents evacuated their homes.

A commission appointed by President Jimmy Carter later declared the health impact minimal although the stress on residents was "quite severe." Many studies found the accident did not increase cancer rates. A few concluded the opposite.


Bonnie Pfister is a Tribune-Review Political Reporter

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