March 28

1979 — Nuclear Leak at Three Mile Island


“There’s a hell of a lot of radiation in the reactor building.”

Not the words you want to hear from the US spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, especially if you live in the surrounding Pennsylvania counties.

Or if you’re pregnant, or a pre-school child — ordered to evacuate if living within five miles of the site.

That day in 1979, radioactive steam escaped into the atmosphere.  It took five hours for authorities to alert the public.

Luckily the weather was calm.  A light breeze barely disturbed the air, so the radioactivity didn’t spread too far into populated areas.

Such is not the case today.  You’d moved west to escape nuclear fears from your childhood.  Earthquakes were supposed to be your only significant threat.

An unexpected fault line shook beneath the foundation of a nuclear plant, three states away.  Two separate thunderstorms, accompanied by gale-force winds, converged over the site of this malfunction.  User error, faulty equipment, and a swirling catalyst courtesy of Mother Nature.

The storm is coming, whipping clouds of radioactive mist over the skies.  You’ve taped plastic tarp over the windows, but you hear the pressure of strong winds against the side of your house.  Warning sirens howl in the distance.  A freight train seems to rumble down your street, followed by a snap and hiss of broken power lines, shingles shaking off a nearby roof.

You cower beneath an interior door frame.  You can see into the living room, where a plastic sheet over the front window starts to billow inward like strong wind filling a ship’s sail.  The tape seal breaks free on one corner, and a puff of steam hisses into the room.