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1979: Nuclear leak causes alarm in America
Radioactive steam has leaked into the atmosphere in Pennsylvania, USA.

The accident happened when a water pump broke down at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, 10 miles (16km) south-east of the state capital Harrisburg.

There are fears some of the plant's 500 workers have been contaminated.

The authorities have declared a "general emergency" but did not inform the public until five hours after the gas escaped at 0400 local time.

There's a hell of a lot of radiation
Joe Fouchard, USNRC spokesman
Director of the County Civil Defence Organisation (CCDO) Les Jackson said they had drawn up an evacuation plan, but nearby residents have not been moved yet.

He described the scene at the large power station in the Susquehanna River as "a madhouse".

Spokesman for the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (USNRC) Joe Fouchard said: "There's a hell of a lot of radiation in the reactor building."

A spokesman for Metropolitan Edison - one of the companies that runs Three Mile Island - said the nuclear reactor automatically shut down after the malfunction, but not before the leak.

According to a US Government report radiation has been detected a mile away, but the calm weather has helped contain the spread of the noxious fumes.

One of the nuclear engineer at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, William Dornsife, said: "There was very little wind this morning, so the radioactivity shouldn't have gone very far."

"What small release there was will be confined to the local vicinity," he continued.

The emergency status will remain until there has been a thorough investigation by teams in anti-radiation suits.

The nuclear industry has been under increasing scrutiny in the US recently.

Five plants were closed down there just two weeks ago over fears of the effects of earthquakes on cooling towers.

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Photo of Three Mile Island nuclear plant
Radioactive gas escaped despite the automatic shut down of the reactor

In Context
Concern mounted in the days following the accident as investigations showed serious damage to the nuclear fuel rods, which threatened melt-down of the plant.

The authorities recommended pregnant women and children under school age living within five miles of the site should be evacuated.

And Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh gave a warning that the four counties surrounding Three-Mile Island might have to be cleared of people too.

The accident was caused by a combination of human error and equipment failure and the plant was partially shut down.

Three Mile Island remains the largest nuclear incident in US history.

It has attracted enormous public attention, although nobody died as a direct result of the accident and subsequent radioactive fall-out.

Research released in 2002 showed incidences of cancer in the area were not significantly higher than elsewhere.

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