On March 28, 1979, 30 years ago today, the unthinkable happened: one of the two reactors at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania started to melt down. Though the cause and consequences remain in dispute, Three Mile Island remains the most serious nuclear accident in American history. Its legacy has loomed over the debate on nuclear power for decades. But as memory fades and recognition of climate change spurs the search for energy sources that don't emit carbon, nuclear power is being seen in a new light - and many people are pushing for construction and relicensing of plants for the first time since the accident.
- Lauren Redness, in The New York Times
I was a student in Boston at the time of the TMI incident, and recall the feeling of helplessness and the perception of being unprotected. Boston might or might not have been downwind of the site (who was to be believed?), and if the air wasn't safe to breathe, what choice did we have?
1979 was a dark year. It wasn't all disco and CHiPs like the VH1 specials would have you think. On November 4, Iranian protesters captured 52 U.S. diplomats and held them hostage for 444 days. Shortly afterwards , a botched rescue attempt resulted in eight servicemen's deaths and disturbing images on television of crashed and ruined helicopters in the desert. And by May 18, 1980, Mount St. Helens catastrophically erupted in the deadliest and most economically destructive volcanic event in the history of the United States.
In the midst of all this dread, The Clash released their album London Calling on December 14, 1979, Britain's Christmas gift to the world. While we breathed suspect air, while we worried about the hostages and our government's impotence and apparent inability to protect us, the radio would broadcast the album's title song with it's chorus:
"The ice age is coming, the sun is zooming in,
Engines stop running and the wheat is growing thin,
A nuclear error but I have no fear -
London is drowning and I live by the river."
Joe Strummer later succinctly summarized the mood of the time: "We felt that we were struggling - about to slip down a slope or something, grasping with our fingernails. And there was no one there to help us."
30 years later, and have things really changed? We worry about the air that we breathe. We worry about our government's actions in the Islamic world, notably in Iraq and Iran. We worry about a nuclear winter (the ice age is coming), global warming (the sun is zooming in), peak oil (engines stop running), drought and famine (the wheat is growing thin). Do we really need to add nuclear errors to our list of concerns?