Resources for Covering Nuclear Power, 30th Anniversary of Three Mile Island Accident

By chance, my travels have taken me to Pennsylvania's Susquehanna Valley a number of times in the last year. Every time I fly out of the Harrisburg airport, I drive by the cooling towers of the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant.

This Saturday marks the 30th anniversary of the tragic accident that happened there. For people of my generation, TMI once represented the threat, not the opportunity, of nuclear power. Thoughts on nuclear power are changing, though.

About 20 percent of the nation's electricity now comes from nuclear plants, and more reactors than ever are on the drawing board. Both President Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain have promoted nuclear power as part of the nation's energy future.

The nuclear industry today claims it's as environmentally friendly as fossil fuel plants.

The Boston Globe reported:

"A new Gallup poll is finding growing levels of support among Americans for nuclear energy.

"While most people have supported nuclear power in recent years -- usually in the mid-50 percent range - the poll found 59 percent now favor its use. And the number of people who say they strongly favor nuclear -- usually around 20 percent -- has soared to 27 percent.

"President Barack Obama has pledged to re-examine nuclear energy, although that promise came under scrutiny earlier this month when his proposed budget cut most of the funds for a national nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. His stimulus package also stripped billions for a loan program the nuclear industry wanted."

The Economist said:

"According to a poll by the European Commission last year, 44 percent of people in the European Union now broadly support nuclear energy, up from 37 percent in 2005; and 45 percent oppose it, down from 55 percent."

Saturday's anniversary of the TMI incident provides ample opportunity to examine where America's nuclear plans are headed and how people are responding to them.

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission provides some background on the accident:

The accident at the Three Mile Island Unit 2 (TMI‑2) nuclear power plant near Middletown, Penn., on March 28, 1979, was the most serious in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history(1), even though it led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community.  But it brought about sweeping changes involving emergency response planning, reactor operator training, human factors engineering, radiation protection, and many other areas of nuclear power plant operations. It also caused the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission to tighten and heighten its regulatory oversight. Resultant changes in the nuclear power industry and at the NRC had the effect of enhancing safety.

The sequence of certain events -- equipment malfunctions, design-related problems and worker errors -- led to a partial meltdown of the TMI‑2 reactor core but only very small off‑site releases of radioactivity.

Here are some additional resources to help with your reporting:

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.


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