There wasn’t much to fear in November of 1979. Not for a 13-year-old girl in a small US town. Politics were a long ways away, the holidays were approaching, and it didn’t look like the killer bees were going to make it to most of the country after all. Three small words broke that cocoon and opened up a fresh batch of fears: Three Mile Island.
The facts really didn’t matter to me and my friends. What we heard was nuclear power plant and accident. Those words are not supposed to go together. Nuclear power was a frightening enigma. Protesters were always trying to block the building of the plants. Just that year, The China Syndrome had been released, a movie that lead the viewer into the world of such reactors and how the beaurocracy dealt with negative publicity by not having any. It reminded me of the ancient Egyptians who dealt with battle losses by simply not recording them. Only the lack of disclosure in the nuclear energy area was more sinister, not just because it was during my time of life but also because it could directly affect me and those I knew by killing us or worse.
We all knew that nuclear accidents could cause birth defects in later generations. Any spill would immediately be absorbed into the earth and end up in water, sometimes even municipal water systems that wouldn’t have the technology to be able to filter out any damaging material. Regardless, animals would be drinking contaminated water, and we would then eat their meat or drink their milk and become sick ourselves.
As I neared graduation, we heard less and less about the effects of Three Mile Island, but then came Silkwood. Based on a true story, here was more evidence of sloppiness at nuclear facilities and the imminent danger. An accident like Three Mile Island was inevitable if this was the kind of safety system that was in place.
I’ve learned some things about nuclear plants since reaching adulthood, and most of them have helped allay my fears a bit; we have relatively little to fear from them, and there are lots of other scary things in the world we could be afraid of. I do admit that the leak 30 years after the original shook me up a bit, bringing back some fears from long ago, but the proof that we have moved on from such fears is right there in the news: 2012 is the blockbuster movie teenagers are buzzing about, not some flick about nuclear accidents. If history has taught us anything it is that fears of the Mayan apocalypse, like the nuclear meltdown and the killer bees, will become the stuff of memory.