The Three Mile Island accident of 1979 was the worst nuclear power plant disaster in the United States. It happened at a time when nuclear power safety was in question and when the mention of the word Nuclear brought on thoughts of war. Also it brought the downfall of nuclear power as a leading power resource.
The significance it had on media history was it showed people how close to home the danger was and it gave a glimpse to outsiders on how local residents have lived in fear of Three Mile Island. The accident brought on a great debate on how safe was nuclear power.
The media form that is in focus for this research paper are newspaper aritcles from between the two days following the accident. The articles where chosen from two different instate newspapers: The Philidelphia Inquirer and The Harrisburg Patriot. The reason these newspapers were chosen was to give two perpectives on the situation one from a local small market newspaper and one from a more high profile and high circulation newspaper. The writers of the articles varied from staff writers to AP reporters.
The media era in which the event occurred was in the modern media age which still exist today. Mass media consisted of new journalism. It was at an end of a decade which featured the winding down of the Vietnam War and the wake of the Watergate scandal. It was also the year prior to an election year.
The world was still under the threat of nuclear war. The Cold War era was five years away from reaching an all time high. Journalism was very aggressive and America was still in question onto how safe is nuclear power.
The opening front-page article from the Philidelphia Inquirer gave a detailed account of how the nuclear reactor leaked and provided a diagram how the nuclear reactor worked. The writer for the opening article on the accident was Inquirer science writer Joel n. Shurkin. He opens with the following paragraph following paragraph:
The radioactive iodine that leaked yesterday from the Three Mile Island nuclear power station near Harrisburg is one of the inevitable products of atomic fission the nuclear process used to generate electricity.
The aritcle describes how a nuclear reactor should work and what happens when the process goes wrong:
It is fission that produces not only heat to drive the turbines but also hazardous radioactive substances that when everything goes right are contained in a steel-and-concrete chamber: When something goes wrong as happened at Three Mile Island there is the possibility usually considered remote that radiation will leak out.
Shurkin later writes about the worlds unknown knowledge of the dangers of nuclear radiation at the time:
Scientist bitterly dispute what is a dangerous level of radiation. Some think that there is a threshold and that any radiation that does not exceed that threshold does no harm. Other scientist believe that there is no such thing as a good level.
Shurkin dicusses what happened mechanically but never describes what pysically happened at the plant. There is no indication of what workers did at the time the radiation leak happened nor is there a report from anyone on how the crisis is being solved. The article stays along the line of informing a reader who is unfamiliar with a nuclear reactor. In one paragraph he writes on how fission workes:
As the uranium gives off radiation particles strike nearby uranium atoms splitting more particles. One result of the atom splitting called fission is a great deal of heat radiation.
Another article on the Inquirer s front page gave a more precise account of what happened at the plant and where they were getting their information.The following opening paragraph was wriiten by staff writer Thomas Ferrick jr. and Susan Q Stranahan:
Radiation was being released yesterday within a 16-mile radius of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant southeast of Harrisburg after a valve broke about 4 a.m. in a cooling system of the reactor. The interior of the plant was also contaminated.
The article also reveals that there was a descrepency on who has the correct information on the accident:
The situation is more complex than the company first led us too believe said Lt. Gov. William W. Scranton at a news briefing in Harrisburg. Metropolitan has given you (the news media) and us (the state) conflicting information.
They also inform the readers of prior problems at the power plant:
Reports filed with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission indicate a histiry of problems with both prior to start-up and afterward. The unit was shut about five months last-year during its resting phase for various modifications according to federal officials.
The Inquirer s next day issue provided a clearer account of what happened inth island. The articles also revealed what the nation felt about the present situation and how it affects the government s standpoint the safety of nuclear energy. An article by staff writer Ray Holton and William Ecenbarger tells us the opinions of the residents near to Three Mile Island. Many residents felt that the plant has brought many jobs to their community. Others feel it has brought them many loses. We lost two 300-pound steers said one of the people they interviewed. There are two different sides shown by the local farmers:
Farmers have reported strange happenings among livestock and wildlife. Enviromentalist have criticized the plant as poorly designed. And in one instance the plant s security was breached a boatman who wandered in.
Mrs. Kauffamn who helps her husband operate a small farm said she was concerned about her own safety but not enough to move.
if the good Lord means for me to go that way she said that s the way I m going to go. I m not letting the electric company scare me out of a home.
More of the article explains that many of the residents have unexplained deaths of their pets and farm animals. Last year I lost twelve dogs said Paul Holowka who raised Brittany spaniels at the time. They died of cancer. That never used to happen.
Since the first start of the power plant in 1974 The wild game started to disappear one resident lost 70 to 80 heads of cattle.
The article said that no agency of government at the time has given confirmation to the concerns of these farmers. The farmers felt that the accident was one more indication that the plant was a menace.
One incident involved a boat carrying 20 men from a yearly poker game which the boat got stranded in the middle of the river. The boat drifted for about two hours until landing on Three Mile Island.
One of the crew members got off the boat climbed the plant s security fence and wandered the plant for a time until surprising two security officers.