As Japan’s nuclear crisis continues to unfold, many are considering the lessons from Three Mile Island, America’s worst nuclear accident. The Washington Post recently interviewed J. Samuel Walker, a Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) historian and author of Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective, on the similarities between the two disasters.
In Three Mile Island, Walker gives a comprehensive account of the causes, context, and consequences of the Three Mile Island crisis. The heart of Walker’s narrative is a moment-by-moment account of the accident itself, in which he brings to life the players who dealt with the emergency: the NRC, the state of Pennsylvania, the White House, and a cast of scientists and reporters. He also looks at the aftermath of the accident on the surrounding area, including studies of its long-term health effects on the population.
As we watch the aftermath of the crisis unfold in Japan, Walker urges a measured approach, drawing from his experiences with the NRC. During the 1970s, he tells the Washington Post, “proponents of nuclear power had underestimated the risks of a severe accident and that nuclear critics had overstated the likely consequences.” But he also warns against complacency, noting, “Before the accident, nuclear experts were confident that they had solved the most important reactor safety issues. This confidence and the complacency it fostered were shattered on the morning of March 28, 1979.”