Three Mile Island Deja Vu In Japan

By: Mary Smith - Staff Writer
Published: Mar 13, 2021

Three Mile Island. As Japan races to avert a nuclear crisis, it reminds a former governor of an island called Three Mile. The governor who oversaw America’s 1979 meltdown talks on how he handled the disaster.

Richard Thornburgh is watching the developments in Japan with a keen sense of deja vu. The former governor was confronted with a potentially catastrophic event at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor. It was resolved without cost to human life, or the environment, which by no means is certain in Japan.

“I wouldn’t want to be in their shoes,” he said in an interview Saturday.

Thornburgh was having a breakfast meeting with legislators on the morning of March 28, 1979, when he got a call from an emergency-management official saying there had been “an accident” at Three Mile Island. “I knew immediately that it was nothing trivial,” he said.

Though what occurred in Japan is the result of a natural disaster, the Republican says, the challenge officials face is identical: “To get a grip on what the facts are.” That’s difficult when you’re dealing with complicated technology and an abundance of experts. Thornburgh, who would later serve as attorney general in George H.W. Bush’s administration, drew on all his lawyerly skills, “questioning and cross-examining them until you get some sense of what’s going on inside that facility.”

The accident happened on a Wednesday, and it took about five days before he had a real understanding of what was unfolding. On Sunday, amid the uncertainty, President Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer by training, sought to reassure the American people. He made a personal visit to the Three Mile Island facility. “That was a boon for us,” Thornburgh says. “Although our politics are different, I was always grateful to him for coming.”

Thornburgh cautions that “there’s nothing inherently unsafe about an explosion-it depends what exploded.”

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