If the American nuclear industry and its regulators ever had a robust safety culture, it began in the protest movements that opposed the construction of nuclear plants like Diablo Canyon in California and Seabrook in New Hampshire. To credibly oppose these plants, grassroots activists had to become technically proficient in diagnosing each plant’s specific faults, as well as well versed in regulatory law and policy. Their newfound expertise challenged the political bureaucrats and nuclear industry technocrats.
Then came the turning point—the 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, which changed everything by opening up the nuclear industry to broad government and public scrutiny. After TMI, some of those activist-researchers would even end up in positions as government regulators.
Strangely enough, the story of Three Mile Island sort of begins with a Hollywood movie—The China Syndrome, which was released in March 1979. The nuclear industry dismissed its plot as far-fetched: a near meltdown in California and the subsequent exposure of plant officials’ lies by two hip journalists, played by Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas.
At the time, nuclear technocrats said meltdowns were almost impossible, as rare as “black swans.” But twelve days after the film opened, a reactor at TMI experienced a partial meltdown. Suddenly life was imitating art, imitating life.
The TMI accident began at 4 AM on Wednesday, March 28, when an open valve got stuck and started to drain reactor No. 2 of its coolant. The little indicator light showing when the valve was open was malfunctioning, and so engineers thought the valve was closed when it was actually open and draining coolant. Soon, pumps pushing extra water into the reactor ran dry—the water was essentially running out the other side—and started to shake and pound violently. Plant operators, fearing an explosion, shut them off, which only made the reactor drain faster. Pressure began building, the reactor got hotter and hotter, and the fuel rods began to melt.
But TMI’s engineers couldn’t see any of this, and they couldn’t figure out what was happening—all because the indicator light falsely told them the valve was closed. As the plant’s complex control panels went wild with blinking lights and loud alarms, panic gripped the crew. By then, they were beyond following procedures. A guessing game started, and human errors started to compound the technical problems.
Finally, one technician, in exhausted desperation, decided to turn on the pumps again. They refilled with water and stopped shaking. Fresh coolant hit the fuel rods, and pressure in the reactor began to go down.
Mike Gray, who wrote the screenplay for The China Syndrome, had been sent to cover the disaster for Rolling Stone. Just like the journalists in his film, he staked out a tavern closest to the plant. Exhausted and panicked workers coming off their shift, lubricated with beers and shots, were soon explaining the whole tale to him.
“If that guy hadn’t thrown that switch and gotten the pump back on,” said Gray, “Pennsylvania would probably have a new capital. They would have lost Harrisburg.”
In the end, dumb luck saved the day. The plant came within thirty minutes of a full meltdown. And even though that disaster was averted, the reactor vessel was destroyed and radiation was released into the atmosphere.