Former Gov. Thornburgh recalls TMI nuclear crisis

    Japan’s nuclear crisis brings back memories of the world’s first near nuclear meltdown in Pennsylvania more than 30 years ago. The Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Harrisburg became synonymous with the dangers of nuclear energy production.

    On March 28, 1979, Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh was hosting a breakfast for opposition lawmakers to talk about the budget when he got a call about an accident at a nearby nuclear plant.

    “I didn’t know much about Three Mile Island and even less about nuclear energy, but I knew enough that an accident at a nuclear plant was serious business,” he said.

    Thornburgh said one of the hardest things in the first few days of that uncertainty was getting accurate information.

    “The very first source that we relied upon was the utility company itself that operated the reactor, but they soon proved less than forthcoming on the facts, in fact misrepresented some of the facts,” he said.

    So Thornburgh asked President Jimmy Carter for help. Carter sent a nuclear engineer who was able to speak directly to decision-makers as well as reporters.

    Thornburgh ordered a voluntary evacuation of pregnant women and children from the area.

    Several reports issued after the event concluded that residents were not exposed to harmful levels of radiation.

    Diane Screnci, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said  the average  radiation dose to about 2 million people in the area, was only about 1 millirem.

    “And to put that into context the average person is exposed to more than 600 millirems a year from all sources of radiation,” she said

    On Friday, Japanese officials raised the situation’s level of significance from 4-to-5 on an international scale. That’s the same rating given to the Three Mile Island accident.

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