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Mar. 16, 2011

I Didn’t Die At TMI

by Ira Flatow

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That was what the t-shirt read, on the table where they hawked souvenirs at Three Mile Island, 32 years ago next month. TMI was alot like Fukushima and nothing like it. There was plenty of fear and confusion. But in the end, the system “worked” to some extent and little radiation was released. And the site turned into a mini tourist attraction selling T-shirts.
 
 
June 2010 Photo of Three Mile Island nuclear power plant with deactivated Unit 2 located on the left.

That didn’t matter to those of us who covered it, because at the time, we had no idea what was happening inside that reactor, pretty much like it appears to be the case in Japan, too. Joel Shurkin, of the Philadelphia Inquirer (they would go on to win a Pulitzer for their coverage) and I would eat sandwiches in our car, a Geiger counter hanging outside the window as we munched across the river from the crippled reactor.
 
Those hydrogen explosions in Fukushima are also familiar, as nuclear engineers feared an explosive hydrogen gas bubble might be forming in the TMI reactor (heat water hot enough, and it cracks open into its components.) It never did.
 
That’s what makes Fukushima so scary and so different. Right now, it’s probably closer to a TMI type disaster. But if it continues to melt, catch fire and spread, we might be looking like a Chernobyl affair – a million times more radiation than TMI. (Another April, another year.)
 
And there will never be anything humorous about this event worthy of a t-shirt.
 
Three decades ago, my editor phoned me at my desk one Wed. morning. Standing by the wire machine, she said that a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania might suffer something called a “melt down”

“Is that something we should be concerned with?” she asked. “Is that something we should cover?”
No one will ever ask that question again.
 
***UPDATE**
 
The drainage of water in one or more of the pools containing the spent nuclear fuel rods, and their exposure, now appears to be tipping this crisis more towards a Chernobyl like situation.
About Ira Flatow

Ira is the host and executive producer of Science Friday.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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