MIDDLETOWN, Pa.--Forty-six-year-old Hilde Burgit remembers America’s last nuclear crisis vividly – she was only miles away from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant when it experienced a partial meltdown almost 32 years ago. Then in the seventh grade, she was forced to stay in her classroom while rumors spread.
“There were stories that [the nuclear plant] had blown up,” said Burgit, who spoke to National Journal with her 76-year-old mother, Alice Fox, as they walked down Middletown’s main throughway on Tuesday.
Fox, who was at home at the time of the accident, said that students in her husband’s class were so panicked when hearing the news, they ran home. Fears were compounded when the sheer number of calls rendered phone lines inoperable.
“When the accident happened, people really panicked,” she said. “They really did.”
The stories in this small, central Pennsylvania town, population just under 10,000, are not hard to come by – almost everybody remembers where they were on March 28, 1979, when the nuclear reactor appeared on the verge of catastrophe. But if the memories are sharp, their fears are not.
Interviews with many of the town’s residents reveal that most of them rarely give the plant – whose silos and plumes of steam are visible on the horizon – a second thought, even in the wake of the nuclear crisis in Japan. Terri Herr, 43, a waitress at a local diner, was in fifth grade in March 1979. Her words summed up the feelings of many: “I was scared then, but it doesn’t scare me anymore.”
The accident scared many policymakers, however. Since Three Mile Island, the worst nuclear accident in the nation's history, the industry has essentially been frozen. Not a single new reactor has been built in the United States since.
In the Nuclear Energy Institute's first press briefing since the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Japan's tsunami-stricken coast, senior vice president Anthony Pietrangelo on Tuesday noted some similarities between the Three Mile Island incident and Japan's disaster. Both plants suffered damage to the nuclear core, he said, but he added that Pennsylvania’s accident resulted in “hardly any radiological release, and no one was harmed.”
“The difference is, [Three Mile Island] had all their systems and components working and had AC power,” Pietrangelo said. “That’s the big difference between that and what’s being experienced in Japan. There is some similarity, but there is a lot more different with this event.”
In recent years, some talked of a nuclear renaissance in the United States, spurred largely by efforts to tackle climate change. Nuclear power, which supplies about 20 percent of the nation’s electricity, is the only cheap and widely available source of energy that does not emit the greenhouse gases that cause global warming. After resisting efforts to expand nuclear energy for years, some environmentalists and Democrats – including President Obama – became cautious proponents of expanding nuclear power. Last month, the Obama administration approved an $8.3 billion federal loan guarantee for construction of a reactor in Burke, Ga. It was expected to be the first new nuclear construction to break ground in the U.S. in three decades.
The Japanese crisis throws the prospects for that project and others into uncertainty. No top policymakers have yet recommended a freeze on U.S. nuclear power, but several Democrats, including Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., have called for a heightened reviews of safety conditions.
For now, the Obama administration says it maintains its support for nuclear power. At a House Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, Energy Secretary Steven Chu said that the administration is "committed to learning from Japan’s experience as we work to continue to strengthen America’s nuclear industry," and he signaled that the White House believes nuclear is an essential component for meeting the needs of the nation's energy-hungry economy.
Nonetheless, experts say it’s all but certain that the Japanese crisis will delay any major U.S. nuclear construction. Experts say that in the absence of federal climate-change legislation that prices greenhouse-gas emissions, the prospect of a nuclear renaissance was already dimming. Now, at the very least, it appears that public uncertainty and a probable increase in financial liability will freeze significant expansion of U.S. nuclear generation by as much as 20 years.
In Middletown, the Three Mile Island plant continues to operate. The reactor that had the accident has been taken offline, but another reactor at the plant is operated by Exelon and provides power to about 800,000 households in the mid-Atlantic region, according to company spokeswoman April Schilpp. At the local diner, Herr said people rarely discuss the plant’s safety, except when news crews descend on the community.
“We don’t really talk about it, except on anniversaries,” she said. “Even then, there’s no concern.”
The reasons for the lack of concern vary. Fox and Burgit say they think the plant is so closely regulated now, that operators couldn’t get away with anything unsafe. Others point out that it took a devastating earthquake and tsunami to knock the Japanese plant offline, neither of which would occur in landlocked, tectonically stable central Pennsylvania.
Don Castillo, 69, a former engineer at a local power company, suggests that the “hysteria” that surrounded the Three Mile Island meltdown was misplaced. As someone who worked with the plant operators, he said he understood—even while nobody else did—that the news of a partial meltdown wasn’t as dire as it seemed.
“I saw mass hysteria; it really wasn’t warranted,” he said, adding that he was the only one in his housing development who didn't flee when the accident happened.
The town's residents have worked the plant into their DNA, said Eric Epstein, chairman of the nuclear watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert, but that comes with a price.
"Just because you deal with it, doesn't mean it hasn't left a psychic scar," he said.
Amy Harder and Coral Davenport contributed