A Narrative by Scott Johnson
On March 28, 1979, as the sun rose over Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a series of mechanical, electrical, and human failures led to what has been described as the worst nuclear power plant accident in the history of the United States. News of the accident rocked the nation, and its effects were keenly felt by those who lived in the shadow of the great concrete towers of Three Mile Island.
Coverage of the accident and its repercussions by the mainstream media was confusing at best. Unfamiliar with nuclear technology, and often openly afraid of it, few journalists managed to impart to the public a clear, coherent picture of the evolution of the crisis. Despite the best efforts of many experts to relate the true situation, most coverage has suffered from some form of bias, ranging from anti-nuclear paranoia to pro-nuclear propaganda. Facts, related by people with the time to gain a full understanding of their meaning, have been scarce. Many of us are still in the dark as to exactly what happened at TMI, how it happened, and why.
Since my early teen years, I've had a keen interest in nuclear technology. Like many, I became even more curious after hearing about the TMI crisis as a high school student in 1979. The technology, human factors, and political and economic pressures that brought about the accident seemed beyond understanding by any one person. All that I could assume at the time was that there was a great deal more to the story than I'd heard on the nightly news.
I am neither strongly pro-nuclear nor strongly anti-nuclear. I see the advantages as clearly as the disadvantages, the dangers as vividly as the benefits. From my position, sitting solidly on the fence between the two extremes, I see a more balanced picture. Over the years, while searching for information, I hit upon the idea of sharing that balanced view, in the form of a clear, detailed description of the crisis, uncolored by any biases, and undistorted by the misunderstandings of non-technical journalists.
Research for a software project in the mid 1980's brought me into contact with most of the factual information, and gave me a more refined understanding of the underlying technology. Armed with this knowledge, my curiosity, and a strong background in physical science, I set out to make myself an expert on the subject, in the hope of gaining sufficient comfort with the subject to write the aforementioned description.
This narrative is the result of that effort. Based on interviews, extensive research, and review of the testimony of those involved, this web site will attempt to fill in the missing details. What you are about to read is a complete account of what took place inside the walls of TMI on that tense spring evening in 1979.
Navigating the site is simple. The menus just below the title will lead you to the various sections of the site, and available as pull-downs beneath those menus are the contents.
The "Background" section contains some basic information about how nuclear energy is created and used, and about the technology of nuclear power. If you've already got a clear understanding of that subject and know how a pressurized water reactor works, you may safely skip directly to the narrative. Otherwise, you'll have an easier time understanding the events if you read this background first.
You'll notice three small icons at the top right of every page. These enable you to save the page as an Adobe PDF file, to print it, or to e-mail it to an interested friend. Please remember that the information here is copyrighted, and kindly don't republish it without my permission. I generally grant such permission provided it's for non-commercial use, but please do me the favor of asking first.