MIDDLETOWN, Pa. — Japan's nuclear crisis has transported residents of central Pennsylvania back 32 years, when the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant raised fears that a massive amount of radiation could be released into the atmosphere or the Susquehanna River.
But there are stark differences between the two disasters.
"It's probably not politically correct to say it, but TMI was a piece of cake compared to what they're facing over there in Fukushima, in terms of the problem," said Harold Denton, the federal nuclear engineer who became a calming, knowledgeable voice during the height of the Three Mile Island crisis in March and April of 1979.
As it is with the Fukushima reactors, the central challenge at Three Mile Island was reversing the loss of cooling water in the reactor core that in both cases exposed the highly radioactive fuel rods, increasing the threat of a complete fuel meltdown and a catastrophic release of radiation.
But the Fukushima and Three Mile Island parallel has its limits, nuclear experts say. Japanese engineers are facing a dramatically more complex crisis with multiple problems and challenges never faced in Pennsylvania three decades ago.
At TMI, efforts were concentrated on dealing with a single reactor. Its problems began at 4 a.m. on March 28 when a pressure relief valve failed and stayed open for two hours. Because operators thought it had closed, they shut off an emergency flow of water that had been triggered automatically, worsening the situation and exposing the fuel rods.
A presidential commission later said the TMI accident was "the result of a series of human, institutional and mechanical failures" that had implications throughout the U.S. nuclear industry.
By contrast, the Japan crisis resulted from a massive earthquake and tsunami that knocked out critical electric power and caused physical damage within the plant, including to the reactors' normal emergency cooling system and at least one of the water-filled pools containing used fuel rods.
"That never happened at TMI," Denton said. In Japan, operators lost the normal ability to put water back into the damaged reactors.
By contrast, in Pennsylvania in March 1979, all infrastructure — including roads and electric power supplies, as well as the reactor's water supply — remained intact. The critical steel and cement containment of the reactor stood solid. A water pool holding used fuel rods was secure.
In Japan, for the first time ever, nuclear engineers are trying to head off a total reactor meltdown in three reactors simultaneously, and deal with overheating fuel rods in a damaged storage pool at a fourth reactor.
While not as sweeping in devastation, the Three Mile Island accident still is the worst U.S. nuclear accident, ranked in severity as five on the scale of seven by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Only the Chernobyl accident, with its massive radiation release in Ukraine, is higher at seven. As of Saturday, Japan's nuclear safety agency ranked the three Fukushima reactors in danger of a meltdown as a five in severity, the same as TMI, although that could go higher. A fourth reactor, which has had problems with the fuel cooling pond, was ranked a four in severity.
Whatever the ranking, the people near the TMI site along the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania are watching the news from Japan with some familiarity.
In 1979, they went through the same panic. They were victims of the same misinformation and lack of information. They, too, felt the same terror now felt by the people living near the six-reactor Fukushima complex.
"We tried to separate fact from fiction, dealt with experts who persisted in telling us either more than they knew or less than they knew. ... We struggled to present accurate information," former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh said recently, recalling the TMI accident which came when he was but 72 days in office in the state capital, Harrisburg, only a few miles away.
Thornburgh recalled the terror and confusion in the first five days after the accident.
At one point he strongly urged the evacuation of women and children from near the TMI reactor, only to rescind the recommendation five days later when it was found that he had been given wrong information about a burst of radiation from the plant. At times, he recalled, he couldn't get the most basic information from either the utility that owned the plant or from government officials.
Robert Houser, 62, too, can sympathize with the people in Japan. He, his wife and two kids stayed in their homes near TMI when Thornburgh's evacuation order came.
"Go where? How long? Am I ever going to be able to come back?" he recalled thinking. A volunteer firefighter at the time, Houser distributed fliers advising people they may have to evacuate.
"Some people cursed you out for disturbing them; some people were just as scared as you," he said. By some estimates, as many as 140,000 people left the area.
As at TMI, information has been lacking or conflicting in Japan. There has been no clear word as to the amount of radiation being released and there is confusion over how wide of an evacuation there should be — 12 miles as the Japanese government says, or 50 miles as the U.S. government wants for Americans.
Every indication is that Japan's crisis will persist; if it's anything like TMI, questions will remain for years to come.
It was not until 1985 that U.S. authorities confirmed for certain that a partial meltdown had occurred at Three Mile Island. That assessment came only after the heat had dropped to where they could put cameras into the radiation-filled core. The reactor core has since been removed, though a second undamaged reactor is running.
But lessons were learned from TMI, as they will be from the current crisis in Japan.
Robert Reid, who in 1979 was mayor of Middletown just three miles from TMI and still holds the office, says back then little attention was paid to having an evacuation plan at the ready. "There's not a week that goes by ... that I don't sit down and talk about our evacuation plan and our disaster plan," he recently told the AP.
While to this day several thousand people claim they had suffered illness from radiation caused by the TMI accident, their lawsuit seeking damages was rejected by a federal court in 1996 with the judge concluding they had not proved their case.
Various assessments by the government and nuclear industry have concluded no radiation-related deaths or illnesses resulted from the TMI accident.