Sunday, March 28, 2010

Pop History Moment: Three Mile Island Melts Down


On this day in 1979, a pump in the reactor cooling system at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island failed, resulting in the evaporation of some contaminated water into the atmosphere and causing a partial nuclear meltdown in the facility's Unit 2, which has been shut down ever since.

Immediate reaction to the accident was hysterical, likely because it had been perfectly timed to coincide with the release of The China Syndrome just twelve days earlier, in which a far worse accident occurred at the fictional Ventana Nuclear Power Plant in California (itself based on both the Santa Susana Field Laboratory - which had melted down in July 1959 - and Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant, both in that state).

The film starred Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon, and Michael Douglas; following the real-life events near Harrisburg only Jane Fonda became politically active against nuclear power. Still, her agitiating may have had some effect - either that or she timed her activism to coincide perfectly with pre-existing government plans - because there has been no subsequent expansion of nuclear power capabilities in the United States (except in Springfield). Producers of The China Syndrome, unwilling to be seen as capitalizing on the accident, pulled the movie from certain theatres in the area; nonetheless, the movie's timeliness - not to mention its solid acting and story elements - made the film a blockbuster at the box office, earning it 4 Academy Award nominations in the process.

Unlike the far worse events at Chernobyl in April 1986, the 25,000 people living in the vicinity of Three Mile Island have reported no elevated incidence of diseases like cancer in the three decades since the accident, although stress-related illnesses haven't been factored in; physicist Edward Teller claimed to have been the only victim of Three Mile Island when he suffered a heart attack the following May. 'You might say that I was the only one whose health was affected by that reactor near Harrisburg. No, that would be wrong. It was not the reactor. It was Jane Fonda. Reactors are not dangerous,' he said, in a pro-nuclear ad placed in the Wall Street Journal.

More hysterical reaction followed, this time in the form of laughter; in April 1979 Saturday Night Live aired a sketch entitled The Pepsi Syndrome in which President Jimmy Carter (played by Dan Aykroyd) was adversely (or not, depending on your outlook) affected by radiation while touring the accident site at 'Two Mile Island'; that accident had been caused by a technician (played by Bill Murray) carelessly spilled a cola onto his control panel, after which he opined: 'I coulda had a V8!'
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1 comment:

J. Barrett Lee said...

Why, you're positively glowing!

No, seriously dude, you are...