Netflix’s ‘Meltdown: Three Mile Island’ tells the history of the infamous nuclear plant accident. Here’s how we covered it.
This article features Government Accountability Project’s whistleblower client, Rickard Parks, and was originally published here.
More than 40 years ago, central Pennsylvania was the site of what is considered the worst nuclear accident in the United States: the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island.
Located on the Susquehanna River about 10 miles outside of Harrisburg — about 90 miles from Philadelphia — Three Mile Island created enormous fear and was a huge blow to the nuclear power industry, which, in many ways, still hasn’t recovered.
With the release of Meltdown: Three Mile Island on Netflix, director Kief Davidson and executive producer Carla Shamberg’s four-part documentary delves into the incident and its aftermath, as well as the whistleblower who shed light on the unsafe cleanup of the plant after its partial meltdown.
“We’re talking about a story where there’s a possibility here of the East Coast being contaminated with radiation,” said Shamberg, whose credits include work as a producer on Erin Brockovich. “It was an important story that had never been told.”
As a result, Davidson said, younger generations may have never heard of the calamity, or the lessons its story might hold.
“There’s an opportunity to talk to a younger audience that is completely unaware of what happened,” he said. “Even those that did know about Three Mile Island may only know the very basics.”
In 1980, the Inquirer won a Pulitzer Prize for local or spot news for its coverage of the incident. So, we took a trip back into our archives to see how the Inquirer and Daily News covered Three Mile Island, from the incident itself up to the plant’s ongoing decommissioning. Here is what we found:
The partial meltdown of Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 started at 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, when, according to an Inquirer report from that day, a “malfunction….caused a slight leakage of radiation into the atmosphere,” forcing a shutdown and evacuation of the facility. The reactor had just gone online in December 1978.
State officials, however, were not notified of an issue until about 7:45 a.m., at which point they declared a “general emergency” — the first ever declared at a nuclear reactor, according to an Inquirer report. A spokesperson for plant operator Metropolitan Edison, said at the time that he had “”no idea what caused it or why — if there was a delay.” Some local municipalities reported not being informed of an issue until 10 a.m. or later.
At the time, Lt. Gov. William Scranton called the incident “minor,” and said that “there is and was no danger to public health and safety,” but nearby homes were reportedly evacuated. A spokesperson for Metropolitan Edison Co., meanwhile, said that there was “no measurable release of radiation into the atmosphere.”
By that afternoon, Scranton told reporters that the problem was more complex than representatives from Met Ed led state officials to believe. Gov. Dick Thornburgh would later urge the evacuation of pregnant women and small children living within five miles of the plant, and suggested that anyone living within 10 miles stay indoors to avoid potential exposure to radiation.
“I am very skeptical of any one set of facts,” Thornburgh said.