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No Nukes: How Three Mile Island was Disaster for Media Credibility

The massive earthquake and tsunami that rocked Japan on March 11 claimed many lives and knocked the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant offline reviving decades-old fears as well as liberal media bias about nuclear power.


The news media have promoted anti-nuclear positions since the Three Mile Island accident in 1979, although that incident did not injure or kill anyone and no long-term health impacts have been proven. At that time though, the frightening network coverage was "eerily similar" to the fictional Hollywood account of a nuclear disaster in a film released just days earlier: "The China Syndrome."


Three Mile Island was no "China Syndrome," yet some press outlets specifically sent reporters who had seen the film to cover the Harrisburg, Pa. nuclear accident, according to a PBS documentary.


Following the Japanese disaster, ABC's "Nightline" declared that "the new images from Japan have given the [California] doomsday earthquake scenario new urgency, with an added twist, the threat that a quake might be followed by a nuclear meltdown."


Like "Nightline" some recent reports have spread fear and worry concerning nuclear energy. CNN polled viewers on the question: "Should nuclear energy be a source of electricity?" Martin Bashir on MSNBC and others on ABC included left-wing anti-nuclear "experts" without noting their liberal perspective.


The U.S. gets roughly 20 percent of its power from 104 reactors providing nuclear energy, while many European countries like France rely on it much more. Despite the heavy reliance on nuclear power serious accidents are very rare.


Many of the recent news stories about Fukushima have mentioned Three Mile Island, the largest U.S. nuclear accident, especially after Japan's nuclear agency raised the accident level to 5 - the same level as the 1979 Pennsylvania accident but two levels lower than the Soviet's 1986 Chernobyl disaster.


Because of that it is important to remember the facts about what happened at Three Mile Island, rather than just the long-lasting media hype about the disaster and media bias against nuclear power. Despite very frightening news reports at the time of the accident and in years after, no one was hurt or killed and very little radiation was leaked.


Scary Media Coverage of Three Mile Island


Three Mile Island's (TMI) accident terrified many not only because of communication problems with industry and government officials, but because of frightening new reports with predictions that ultimately didn't happen. An anti-nuclear Hollywood film also influenced the press coverage of the accident, which is frequently cited as the turning point against nuclear energy in America.


In fact, The Washington Post said the "accident clouds future of nuclear power" as early as two days after it happened on March 28, 1979. Since then not a single new nuclear power plant has been built.


Just days after the TMI accident, CBS news anchor Walter Cronkite's introduction for a series of reports on March 30, 1979, was downright scary. "[T]he horror tonight is that it could get much worse. It is not an atomic explosion that is feared, the experts say that is impossible, but the specter was raised that perhaps the next most serious kind of nuclear catastrophe - a massive release of radioactivity."


One ABC anchor called it a "nuclear nightmare" unfolding "on the Susquehanna River." ABC's Tom Jarriel warned that "the first casualty of this accident may have been trust." Despite Jarriel's implicit prediction that there would be casualties, there were no deaths caused by Three Mile Island and no proven health problems from the leaked radiation.


Another ABC reporter, Bettina Gregory, showed viewers the steam towers of Three Mile Island while warning, "Tonight the plant looms like a pale ghost, the specter of potential meltdown hanging over this community."


Other reports featured experts making predictions that ultimately turned out to be wrong. In one report by CBS's Charles Crawford interviewed a doctor of environmental medicine who said, "There's no doubt in my mind that at the doses that seem to be uh, uh, that the people seem to be exposed to downwind - several miles from the plant - that eventually 20 or 30 years from now there can be expected to be an increase incidents of cancer in this population."


That doctor, Paul Molvy of Mt. Sinai Hospital was later proved wrong by studies conducted by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the EPA and other government agencies.


According to the NRC, those studies found that the average dose of radiation to the roughly 2 million people in the area of Three Mile Island was 1 millirem; they noted that exposure from a chest x-ray is roughly 6 millirem.


Despite anecdotal claims of negative health effects from TMI, multiple studies have failed to prove this and a class action lawsuit over health impacts was even thrown out of court.


"In the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident,' NRC said on its website. 'Thousands of environmental samples of air, water, milk, vegetation, soil, and foodstuffs were collected by various groups monitoring the area."


In 1999, long after the facts of the incident were established, PBS maintained the media hype by airing a hyperbolic "American Experience" episode entitled "Meltdown at Three Mile Island" completely with an ominous score fit for a Hollywood horror movie. Even the name of that documentary overstated the TMI disaster, which was only a partial meltdown and was mostly contained.


According to the NRC, TMI "permanently changed" the nuclear industry: "NRC's regulations and oversight became broader and more robust, and the management of the plants was scrutinized more carefully." Plant designs were changed, operator training was improved, emergency preparedness was updated and many other changes were made to improve the safety of nuclear facilities.


Hollywood's Anti-Nuclear Movie Drove Reporting


Just days before the reactor shutdown at Three Mile Island, Columbia Pictures movie "The China Syndrome" was released. In that fictional thriller, a reporter played by Jane Fonda accidentally witnesses an "accident" at a nuclear power plant.


When she tries to report the story she finds an extensive industry cover up including dummied records. Like any anti-industry Hollywood film corporate goons even attempt to kill those trying to expose the plant's safety problems. Unfortunately, thanks to the timing and the news media the "China Syndrome" became nearly synonymous with Three Mile Island despite stark differences.


According to a New York Times magazine article from Sept. 16, 2007, Fonda was "firmly anti-nuke before making the film," but became a "full-fledged crusader" after TMI. Co-star Michael Douglas was "converted" to the anti-nuke position after watching "eerily similar scenes from 'The China Syndrome'" in actual news coverage of Three Mile Island.


As is too often the case, the entertainment media's concept of a nuclear disaster had a huge impact on the news coverage of Three Mile Island. Just two minutes and 12 seconds into PBS's 1999 documentary about the disaster, the filmmakers quoted Mike Gray, a journalist and one of the writers of "The China Syndrome."


A minute and a half later, PBS mentioned the possibility of "meltdown: a scenario called The China Syndrome" which would have happened in the nuclear reactor had reached 5,200 degrees. Later the narrator of the documentary said, "for residents, life seemed to be imitating art" and then showed a clip from the Hollywood movie.


It wasn't until the final three minutes of the hour-long PBS show that NRC's senior engineer Roger Mattson acknowledged that Three Mile Island "was not the China Syndrome." It was a partial meltdown, and the part of the core that melted down was found in the bottom of the containment. It did not, as "The China Syndrome" suggested - melt through the bottom and through the earth all the way to China and render a state "the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable."


But that PBS documentary also revealed a disturbing fact about the journalists sent to cover Three Mile Island. Gray, the screenwriter of "The China Syndrome" and one of the many journalists who went to Harrisburg, Pa. to cover the Three Mile Island accident said that at least one national publication decided which reporters to send to Harrisburg, Pa. to report on the accident based on whether or not they'd seen the movie.


"At one of the major New York dailies the managing editor stood up on his desk and shouted, 'Who here has seen The China Syndrome?' Three guys raise their hand, he says 'you, you, you - you're going to Harrisburg'," Gray recalled. "So the movie then became a briefing film for the press."


Of course, the fictional film being watched by the press was not without a point-of-view. In the book, "Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective" J. Samuel Walker wrote that despite the filmmaker's denials about presenting "a strongly antinuclear message," the director "conceded that it was 'not impartial'."


Walker also wrote that Gray himself "wrote privately that it [The China Syndrome] explained 'the fundamental horrors of nuclear technology'."


Lefties Already Calling for End of Nuclear Power in Wake of Japanese Crisis


Despite the extreme natural disaster that created the crisis and fueled radiation fears in Japan, some on the left-wing in the U.S. are already calling on the Obama administration to "abandon its nuclear energy policy." MSNBC host Cenk Uygar echoed those sentiments on air.


On March 16, Uygar criticized Energy Secretary Steven Chu for saying that the Obama administration's goal of 20 new nuclear plants remained unchanged.


"Here's where it gets dangerous," Uygar said, "3 million Americans live within 10 miles of an operating nuclear power plant. So I'm worried about that as I see what's happening in Japan." In typical MSNBC fashion, Uygar claimed it was the lobbyists keeping politicians on both sides of the aisle in favor of nuclear power rather than safety improvements and the desire for lower-emitting forms of energy.


Although it may irk many on the left, public support for nuclear power was at a "new peak" at the beginning of March. A poll taken by Gallup March 4-7, 2011, found that 62 percent of U.S. adults "favored nuclear energy as one way to meet national electricity needs," Reuters reported March 22. Gallup said that was the highest support since it began polling the issue in 1994.