BBC Home
Explore the BBC
Search ON THIS DAY by date
Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
About This Site | Text Only
1979: Meltdown fears
The accident at the Three Mile Island reactor tapped into American people's deepest insecurities about nuclear power.

Residents woke up on 28 March 1979 to hear their local radio station announcing a "general emergency" had been declared at the plant and that radioactive steam was leaking into the atmosphere.

The accident was caused by technical malfunctions in the power station's water coolant pipes and then compounded by errors made by engineers in the control room.

Despite official reassurance there was no danger of a core meltdown and that fallout was limited, many locals decided not to take the risk and 14,000 people fled the area in the days after the emergency.

Your stories

Three days before TMI blew, my wife delivered our second child in Harrisburg Hospital. I worked several blocks away and, of course, visited at least twice daily.

Granny took off work to care for our two-year-old son. We lived near Duncannon, about eight miles NNW of Harrisburg, upwind of TMI.

Four years later [our] baby was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, Severe Aplastic Anaemia
Stephen Fehr, USA
While the secretary of my governmental department evacuated to Pittsburgh, my vulnerable family was captive to fear of the unknown. We stayed. Four years later the baby was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder, Severe Aplastic Anaemia.

The baby recovered after extensive, expensive, experimental treatments, but the doctors casually dismissed any TMI causality. I still have doubts.
Stephen Fehr, USA

I was 13 years old and I clearly recall the first hint of a problem at Three Mile Island was on a Wednesday. While at school, we were not allowed to go out of doors and all windows were ordered shut.

We were advised if a meltdown occurred we would never be able to return to our homes again
Mary, USA
One by one, some parents sensed the danger and picked up their children from school and left the area. This continued until Friday, when all our fears were confirmed by the arrival of President Jimmy Carter to our small rural farming community.

Our town had no evacuation plans. We were advised if a meltdown occurred, we would never be able to return to our homes again. We didn't even know what a meltdown was! And the movie The China Syndrome [a film about the cover-up of safety hazards at a nuclear power plant] opened at theaters the very same week.
Mary, USA

I was in high school when this happened. It was a huge event. I don't recall me fearing for my safety.

But I do recall, when we were sent home from school, the school administrators would not allow bus windows to be open. It was a warm afternoon, and I remember thinking, "This is really stupid. The bus is not airtight, and I have to get off the bus to walk home!" They closed school for three days.

If it ever happened again, I wouldn't be so blasť about it - I would get as far away as possible!
Lisa, USA
My mother was truly concerned. She had packed some things, and was discussing what we should take and where to evacuate. No panic, just concern.

Officials advised staying in your house with windows closed. Then US President, Jimmy Carter, came to Central Pennsylvania. The Governor of Pennsylvania and experts looked very sober during press conferences.

No one really sure how much radioactivity was released. There was concern about a meltdown.

People who lived next to the plant were evacuated to a local arena.

Looking back, if it ever happened again, I wouldn't be so blasť about it. I would get as far away as possible!
Lisa, USA

I was a high school senior and remember it vividly. Panicked parents coming to school and demanding that they be able to take their children and fleeing hundreds of miles. And men posing as nuclear employees telling people near the plant to evacuate their houses. Once the home owners were gone the men would break in and rob the homes.

That event definitely marked the beginning of the end of nuclear power in the United States. The industry was already under scrutiny because they were not able to deliver electricity as cheaply as they had promised. And this event proved that the industry could not be trusted to run the nuclear program safely.
Mark Snyder, USA

 E-mail this story to a friend

Three Mile Island nuclear reactor
The accident caused radioactive steam to leak from the cooling towers

Resident declaring his intent to stay
Some local residents were determined to stay in their homes

Witness Stories

Search ON THIS DAY by date

^^ back to top
Front Page |  Years |  Themes |  Witness
©MMVIII | News Sources | Privacy & Cookies Policy