MYTH 6: THREE MILE ISLAND WAS A DEADLY NUCLEAR ACCIDENT
Nuclear power is thought by many to be unsafe, in part because mildly enriched
uranium, the chief fuel used in commercial nuclear power plants, is radioactive.
Moreover, its use generates nuclear waste that can pose dangers. Coal, natural
gas, and petroleum, by comparison, do not pose similar risks. Many Americans
fears about nuclear energy stem not just from concerns about the dangers of
radioactive materials but from the near-catastrophe at Pennsylvanias Three
Mile Island nuclear power plant in 1979. The accident, which involved a partial
meltdown of the reactors core, remains the worst accident that the American
nuclear industry has ever experienced.
It is therefore surprising to many people to learn that no one died at Three
Mile Island. In a test of the publics knowledge about what happened, our
respondents were offered various possibilities as to the number of people killed
as a result of the accident. Almost 45 percent of respondents were not
sure, which suggests some uncertainty in the publics mind about
the nature of the accident. Only about one in six respondents answered, correctly,
that the accident resulted in no fatalities. Nearly 12 percent thought that
more than a hundred people died. Almost 10 percent of respondents put the figure
at 27 deaths.
course, peoples opinions about nuclear energy are informed by more than
just Three Mile Island. The 1986 accident at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in
the former Soviet Union helped harden opposition to nuclear energy in some quarters,
particularly in Europe. Unlike Three Mile Island, Chernobyl actually claimed
lives. Several dozen people died in the first few months after the accident,
and the region had to be permanently evacuated. Perhaps 4,000 people eventually
will die from radiation-induced cancers tied to the disaster, according to a
recent United Nations report.
chief lesson to draw from the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl incidents is not
that nuclear power is fundamentally unsafe. Instead, it would seem that nuclear
power is safe, with the proper safeguards in place. The difference between the
two incidents bears out this conclusion. Three Mile Islands concrete containment
structuresairtight structures made of steel-reinforced concretedid
what their name suggests: they contained the accident, ensuring that deadly
radiation did not escape into the atmosphere. Chernobyl, on the other hand,
like most Soviet-era reactors, did not have containment facilities. The tragedy
of Chernobyl was not the initial accident but that nothing was in place to stop
the release of radiation. Chernobyl reveals more about the dangers of Soviet-style
Communism than it does about nuclear energy. As Mark Mills notes, The
would have been hard-pressed to make a viable toaster oven.
Unlike commercial nuclear plants in the United States, the Chernobyl reactor
was designed to produce weapons-grade material in addition to electricity. Its
inherent design instability and lack of safety features practically made an
accident inevitable; its lack of a containment structure guaranteed that an
accident would become catastrophe.
In over a half-century of commercial nuclear power generation,
not one person has died as a
consequence of an accident at an American nuclear plant. Still,
given the dangerous nature of nuclear
materials, people naturally have concerns about the presence of
a nuclear power plant in their community.
Given the great benefits of nuclear energy, journalists and policymakers need
to understand the facts. As demonstrated in the following charts, nuclear energy
in America has a track record of safety.