When US faced nuclear calamity

After-effects of 1979 radiation leak from nuclear plant in Three Mile Island, Pennsylvania, is still felt and seen.

By Alessandro Rampietti

It was four in the morning on Wednesday March 28, 1979 when a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility near Harrisburg in Pennsylvania suddenly overheated, releasing radioactive gases in the air.

A combination of human errors, equipment failure and plain bad luck caused the event that will go down in history as the worst nuclear accident the United States has ever seen. During the tense week that followed, scientist and plant workers scrambled to prevent the nightmare of a total meltdown, while officials rushed in to calm public fears.

Official information from the plant and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission was often incomplete, contradictory and uncertain and although no forced evacuation was put in place, thousands of residents fled to emergency shelters and family and friends houses as far away as they could.
The Three Miles Island accident turned the plant and its giant cooling towers into icons in the US long national argument over the safety of nuclear energy and brought the nuclear industry to a standstill for 30 years. No new nuclear plant was built in the US since although the nuclear power industry believes the accident showed that its safety systems worked, even in the most extreme circumstances.

'Effects still seen'

After years of investigations government and nuclear officials decided that no injuries or deaths resulted from the accident. But for the people living in the area, many questions remain unanswered.

Al Jazeera's Cath Turner speaks to a few survivors of the US' worst nuclear accident at the Three Mile Island plant

Helen and Charles Hocker live just a few kilometres from Three Mile Island. Charles recalls a thick metallic smell in the air that he could taste in his mouth the morning the radioactive burst happened. He believes the right side of his faces was affected, turning red and suffering from rushes on his face.

They evacuated for 10 days with their four children. One of them, Patty, was later diagnosed with cancer in 1984. She died just two years later, at the age of 40. For her parents there’s no doubt that Three Mile Island accident is to blame.
Mary Osborn, another resident of the area whose husband used to work at the plant, also says the effects of the radiations can still be felt and seen today.  

Mary has kept records and pictures of flora and fauna from the area over the past 32 years. They include mutated flowers, some with no reproductive parts, an abnormally large maple leaf and a two-headed calf.
Independent botanists have confirmed the plants were affected by radiation.
Nuclear power in the US has gained credibility as a source of clean energy in a time of mounting concerns about the environmental and public health tolls of fossil fuels and climate change.

The administration of President Barack Obama sees nuclear as a way of combating global warming and easing reliance on foreign oil. It has included $36bn in loan guarantees for new plant construction in its 2012 budget. And the federal government is currently considering applications for 20 new nuclear plants in the US.

But with the latest nuclear meltdown crisis in Japan many think that the new push for nuclear power in the US could suffer a setback.