Cristine Russell: A Japanese Three Mile Island?





[Cristine Russell is an award-winning science, health and environment writer. She is a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs and the president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing.]

In the aftermath of Japan's devastating earthquake, international fear and uncertainty over the state of emergency declared at two of the country's nuclear power plants--and the possibility of a core meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant--have already drawn inevitable comparisons with America's 1979 Three Mile Island accident.

Three Mile Island, in which a partial meltdown occurred, was indeed the worst commercial nuclear power accident in U.S. history, as those of us who covered that frightening event vividly recall. Who could forget the looming white cooling towers that became the iconic image of nuclear disaster?

Media coverage of Japan's current nuclear emergency has focused on the danger of a meltdown at the damaged Fukushima Daiichi plant 160 miles northeast of Tokyo. But, largely lost in the early coverage, is the fact that a meltdown does not necessarily equate to a massive radioactive release to the environment unless the containment structure surrounding the core also fails. The big unanswered questions in the Japanese emergency are the degree to which the hazardous nuclear materials remain safely contained within the plant and the control the operators have over the process.

In the case of the Three Mile Island accident, a severe partial meltdown in the plant's unit 2 reactor core, after a loss of coolant, was largely contained within the American nuclear plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania. Only very small off-site releases of radioactivity occurred during the accident, which resulted from mechanical malfunctions and human error. Extensive studies later concluded that the radioactive levels involved were not considered to be of concern to public health or the environment....

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Robert Lee Gaston - 3/15/2011

I pray Japan is so lucky to have another three mile island.

In the three mile island incident no one was hurt and the damage contained. The undamaged portion of the plant is still generating power.

Three Mile Island proved the safety measures that were in place worked. I really hope that Japan is so fortunate.

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