The Lessons Haven’t Been Learned : Three Mile Island Didn’t Alter Thinking; Will Chernobyl?

<i> Arthur H. Purcell is director of the Resource Policy Institute in Washington and Boulder, Colo. He served as senior staff member with the President's Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island</i>

As the dark stain of Chernobyl covers the shadow of Three Mile Island, nuclear power accidents have moved from the impossible to the unthinkable.

Three Mile Island was, by Nuclear Regulatory Commission standards, a “Class XII” accident--one caused by a series of events so unlikely as to not warrant serious planning for it. On March 28, 1979, this bureaucratically impossible mishap shook the nation and, according to some studies, may have exposed thousands of persons to increased risk of cancer deaths. Three Mile Island threw a virtually inextricable wrench into the domestic nuclear power debate and provided another example of technology’s limits in serving humanity.

Seven years and one month later, the Soviets have acknowledged a nuclear accident of formidable international impact--a disaster that, by most accounts, will make Three Mile Island look like an exercise in nuclear safety. As “Three Mile Island” became the buzzword for nuclear fallibility, “Chernobyl” will become synonymous with nuclear horror.

Chernobyl is what nuclear pessimists--those who have viewed Three Mile Island not as a fail-safe demonstration but a near-miss--have been talking about: a nuclear power accident out of control, with lethal radiation spread over a wide area, carried not only through the air but also through water supplies and the food chain. What TMI threatened, Chernobyl appears to have delivered.


In that respect, Chernobyl may well make the same damning contribution to the international nuclear power debate that TMI brought to the domestic debate. Its message is unmistakably clear: Nuclear power is not inherently safe, as its advocates have long claimed; it is inherently unsafe.

Just last year the U.S. Committee on Energy Awareness, which has spent considerable sums in the media to tout nuclear power, ran a network spot telling audiences that under normal conditions, a nuclear plant emits less radiation than the Lincoln Memorial does. This kind of mind-set has too long pervaded the nuclear community, at home and abroad.

As the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island observed in its report: “After many years of operation of nuclear power plants, with no evidence that any member of the general public has been hurt, the belief that nuclear power plants are sufficiently safe grew into a conviction. . . .”

This conviction has spread across geographic and ideological boundaries. The Soviet Union, already one of the world’s most nuclear nations, had plans for massive expansion of the nuclear option. Nuclear power has been presented to the Soviet people as every bit as promising as in the golden age in the United States, when we were told that nuclear power would be so inexpensive that it would not have to be metered; when, in his sensationally popular “Our Friend the Atom” series, Walt Disney reminded the world that “atomic science has borne many fruits,” that “the harnessing of the atom’s power is only the spectacular end result” and that “we can indeed look upon the atom as our friend.”


The Soviets have truly bypassed some of the “red tape” that nuclear advocates often complain about in this country. It was not until Three Mile Island that the Soviets began to incorporate containment design in their nuclear reactors. But no federal law or court injunction in the Soviet system can keep check on the industry.

As occurred at Three Mile Island and other locations where nuclear safety is in question, the Soviet nuclear community’s belief in the infallibility of nuclear power has tragically added to the problem. Three Mile Island had many graphic lessons. For the most part, however, they have not been absorbed. The fact that there was little outright damage gave too much comfort to those who have supported the status quo in nuclear power. Chernobyl will have many more lessons. If they are not absorbed and acted upon, we may have little chance to learn from a third accident.

Chernobyl emphatically demonstrates the need for increased stringency in nuclear power safety, for strong and widely accepted international standards and safeguards for both minimizing accident potentials as well as mitigating the damage from nuclear accidents.

One of the ironies of Chernobyl is that the accident first came to light in the West because of a nuclear safeguard exercise that is standard in Sweden--routine measurement of nuclear plant radiation levels. The same system that established that basic practice in one country must be drastically expanded to encompass international nuclear activities.

Another poignant irony of Chernobyl is its release of radioactivity across international borders from a country involved in the most deadly of nuclear arms races, a country that, like its U.S. competitor, purports to never want to see such releases from any source.

The nuclear menace has several dimensions, and the ugly head that Chernobyl reared is just one.