BARRY THUMMA  /  AP
In this March 30, 1979, photo a cooling tower of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., looms behind an abandoned playground.
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updated 3/19/2011 7:01:39 PM ET 2011-03-19T23:01:39

Japan's nuclear crisis has transported residents of central Pennsylvania back 32 years, when the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant raised fears that a massive amount of radiation could be released into the atmosphere or the Susquehanna River.

But there are stark differences between the disasters.

"It's probably not politically correct to say it, but TMI was a piece of cake compared to what they're facing over there in Fukushima, in terms of the problem," said Harold Denton, the federal nuclear engineer who became a calming, knowledgeable voice during the height of the Three Mile Island crisis in March and April of 1979.

As it is with the Fukushima reactors, the central challenge at Three Mile Island was reversing the loss of cooling water in the reactor core that in both cases exposed the highly radioactive fuel rods, increasing the threat of a complete fuel meltdown and a catastrophic release of radiation.

But the Fukushima and Three Mile Island parallel has its limits, nuclear experts say. The Japanese engineers are facing a dramatically more complex crisis with multiple problems and challenges never faced in Pennsylvania three decades ago.

At TMI, efforts were concentrated on dealing with a single reactor. Its problems began at 4 a.m. on March 28 when a pressure relief valve failed and stayed open for two hours. Because operators thought it had closed, they shut off an emergency flow of water that had been triggered automatically, worsening the situation and exposing the fuel rods.

A presidential commission later said the TMI accident was "the result of a series of human, institutional and mechanical failures" that had implications throughout the U.S. nuclear industry.

By contrast, the Japan crisis resulted from a massive earthquake and tsunami that knocked out critical electric power and caused physical damage within the plant, including to the reactors' normal emergency cooling system and at least one of the water-filled pool containing used fuel rods.

"That never happened at TMI," said Denton. In Japan operators lost the normal ability to put water back into the damaged reactors.

By contrast, in Pennsylvania in March of 1979, all infrastructure, from roads to electric power supplies as well as the reactor's water supply, remained intact. The critical steel and cement containment of the reactor stood solid. A water pool holding used fuel rods was secure.

In Japan, for the first time ever, nuclear engineers are trying to head off a total reactor meltdown in three reactors simultaneously, and deal with overheating fuel rods in a damaged storage pool at a fourth reactor.

While not as sweeping in devastation, the Three Mile Island accident still is the worst U.S. nuclear accident, ranked in severity as five on the scale of seven by the International Atomic Energy Agency. Only the Chernobyl accident with its massive radiation release in Ukraine is higher at seven. As of Saturday, Japan's nuclear safety agency ranked the three Fukushima reactors in danger of a meltdown as a five in severity, the same as TMI, although that could go higher. A fourth reactor, which has had problems with the fuel cooling pond, was ranked a four in severity.

Whatever the ranking, the people near the TMI site along the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania are watching the news from Japan with some familiarity.

In 1979, they went through the same panic. They were victims of the same misinformation and lack of information. They, too, felt the same terror now felt by the people living near the six-reactor Fukushima complex.

"We tried to separate fact from fiction, dealt with experts who persisted in telling us either more than they knew or less than they knew. ... We struggled to present accurate information," former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh said recently, recalling the TMI accident which came when he was but 72 days in office in the state capital, Harrisburg, only a few miles away.

Thornburgh recalled the terror and confusion in the first five days after the accident.

At one point he strongly urged the evacuation of women and children from near the TMI reactor, only to rescind the recommendation five days later when it was found that he had been given wrong information about a burst of radiation from the plant. At times, he recalled, he couldn't get the most basic information from either the utility that owned the plant or from government officials.

Robert Houser, 62, too can sympathize with the people in Japan. He and his wife and two kids stayed in their homes near TMI when Thornburgh's evacuation order came.

"Go where? How long? Am I ever going to be able to come back?" he recalled thinking. A volunteer firefighter at the time, Houser distributed fliers advising people they may have to evacuate.

"Some people cursed you out for disturbing them; some people were just as scared as you," he said. By some estimates, as many as 140,000 people left the area.

As at TMI, information has been lacking or conflicting in Japan. There has been no clear word as to the amount of radiation being released and there is confusion over how wide of an evacuation there should be — 12 miles as the Japanese government says, or 50 miles as the U.S. government wants for Americans.

Every indication is that Japan's crisis will persist; if TMI is any indication, questions will remain for years to come.

It was not until 1985 that U.S. authorities confirmed for certain that a partial meltdown had occurred at Three Mile Island. That assessment came only after the heat had dropped to where they could put cameras into the radiation-filled core. The reactor core has since been removed, though a second undamaged reactor is running.

But lessons were learned from TMI, as they will be from the current crisis in Japan.

Robert Reid, who in 1979 was mayor of Middletown just three miles from TMI and still holds the office, says back then little attention was paid to having an evacuation plan at the ready. "There's not a week that goes by ... that I don't sit down and talk about our evacuation plan and our disaster plan," he recently told the AP.

While to this day several thousand people claim they had suffered ill health effects from radiation caused by the TMI accident, their lawsuit seeking damages was rejected by a federal court in 1996 with the judge concluding they had not proved their case.

Various assessments by the government and nuclear industry have concluded no radiation-related deaths or illnesses resulted from the TMI accident.

___

Hebert reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Marc Levy in Harrisburg, Pa., contributed to this report.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Radiation found in food as Japan rushes to curb crisis

  1. Closed captioning of: Radiation found in food as Japan rushes to curb crisis

    >>> we want to turn now to the crisis in japan. there are new worries on the radiation leak and the food supply now.

    >> reporter: lester, the desperate effort to stop the radiation disaster is showing some encouraging signs, but it is far from over and the discovery of contaminated milk and spinach shows why the race against time . 1,500 tons of water should be enough to fill the tank which should look like this covers spent fuel rods that have been exposed and emitting radiation. if the tank does not have a major leak.

    >> we think we have succeeded in stabilizing the situation.

    >> engineers will try to get the pumps running again. in five and six, diesel powered generators have the water circulating again and the temperature is dropping.

    >> there is a slight chance that one of the reactors will have a late failure. they are getting cooler all the time and they seem to have a way of getting water into the cool r er cores. it is a fragile situation and there is a potential for a mistake.

    >> reporter: the damage has been done. the contaminatta damage tame.

    >> the spinach was found 60 mile to the south.

    >> most of the limits are set low to begin with. so five times higher than the legal limit still would not be enough to cause a discernible health effect .

    >> reporter: the government said drinking a glass of contaminated milk for a whole year would expose a person to the radiation found in one ct scan . people leaving fukashima were recommended to take iodine tablets.

    >> reporter: those don't exceed safety standards du s but experts say if the reactor was brought under control tomorrow and it won't be, rad yo active contamination will continue for weeks

Photos: After Japan's earthquake and tsunami - week 8

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  1. A radiation measuring instrument is seen next to some residents in Kawauchimura, a village within the 12- to 18-mile zone around the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, on April 28. Most residents of Kawauchimura have evacuated in order to avoid the radiation, but some remain in the area of their own accord. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A brazier heats the house of Masahiro Kazami, located within a 12-mile radius of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant, April 28. (Koichi Kamoshida / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Volunteers help clean a cemetery at Jionin temple in Ishinomaki, Miyagi prefecture, northeastern Japan, on April 29. Many volunteers poured into the disaster-hit region at the beginning of the annual Golden Week holiday. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Japanese government adviser Toshiso Kosako is overcome with emotion during a news conference on April 29 in Tokyo announcing his resignation. The expert on radiation exposure said he could not stay on the job and allow the government to set what he called improper radiation limits for elementary schools in areas near the tsunami-damaged Fukushima nuclear plant. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Fuel rods are seen inside the spent fuel pool of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant reactor 4 on April 30. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. A volunteer girl from Tokyo works to clean the debris of a house in Higashimatsushima, northern Japan, on April 30. (AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Farmer Tsugio Sato tends to his Japanese pear trees in Fukushima city, May 1. He said he expects to harvest the pears in October. Farmers and businesses face so-called "fuhyo higai," or damages stemming from the battered reputation of the Fukushima brand. (Hiro Komae / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Members of Japan Ground Self-Defense Force in protective gear receive radiation screening in Minamisoma in Fukushima prefecture, after searching for bodies at an area devastated by the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. (Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Ruriko Sakuma, daughter of dairy farmer Shinji Sakuma, rubs a cow at their farm in the village of Katsurao in Fukushima prefecture on May 3. Thousands of farm animals died of hunger in the weeks following the quake. (Yoshikazu Tsuno / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Map: Japan earthquake

  1. Above: Map Japan earthquake
  2. Interactive Japan before and after the disaster
  3. Image: The wave from a tsunami crashes over a street in Miyako City, Iwate Prefecture in northeastern Japan
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    Timeline Crisis in Japan

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