Media Literacy

Credibility - Exercises

  1. View the video clips and pictures of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant accident that occurred on March 28, 1979 near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.  This is the most serious nuclear accident ever to happen in the United States.

    Of the five factors listed below, check three that positively affected the credibility of reports about the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident?

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Editorial #1

Buffalo Evening News
Buffalo, New York
April 16, 1979

In fulfilling his pledge to name a top-level panel to assess the causes of the accident at Three mile Island and the lessons to be learned from this, President Carter described its task as "one of the most important ever undertaken by a presidential commission." This is no exaggeration.

In the end the commission’s biggest challenge is nothing less than to determine the future of nuclear power – either to establish a basis of renewed public confidence in it, or to face the fact frankly that, pending further important technological breakthroughs, nuclear has a doubtful future among American’s energy options.

A worried public whose confidence in the safety of nuclear power has been profoundly shaken can draw reassurance, from the composition of the commission, that its search for answers will be full, frank and open.

Dartmouth College President John G. Kemeny, whose knowledge of nuclear energy dates from the Manhattan Project in the 1940s, will head a panel that impresses us for both the range of academic or scientific credentials and the contrasting special backgrounds – environmental, health, engineering, labor – of its members. They include a governor, former chairman of the Council on Environmental Quality, a retired corporation president, a Pennsylvania housewife and a reactor specialist who is an outspoken critic of nuclear proliferation.

The questions demanding thorough answers reach far beyond the human and mechanical causes of the "worst" accident in the nuclear industry’s history. As vital as it is to know how near the reactor core came to a calamitous melt-down and how such lapses in accident safeguards can be prevented in all presently operating plants, the greatest need here is to put in true perspective the options facing alike the advocates of nuclear power and its critics.

Certainly the starting point in this quest should be an impeccably documented evaluation of what went wrong at Three Mile Island and what must be done to guard against any recurrence. In the aftermath of the Pennsylvania episode, assurances based on the industry’s exceptional safety record, or the fact that the worst was averted there, will plainly not suffice. One such catastrophe would be one too many.

Still, all other energy alternatives also have risks and the world’s diminishing fossil-fuel resources may leave no feasible long-term recourse to using nuclear power. So we must re-examine what it will take to make the atom a safe, reliable and economical staple in our energy "closet."

In this regard, the Three Mile Island shutdown could well be

an affirmative blessing-in-disguise, as former Atomic Energy Commission Chairman David E. Lilenthal suggests. Fr at long last, as he says, "it is now recognized that the country must give top and sustained priority to overcoming these hazards by marshaling for the first time in more that 30 years, the cream of our unparalleled scientific, technical and managerial crop to make the atomic resource truly safe."

To assuage public anxieties however, the presidential panel must scrutinize not merely all the mechanical and human safety factors, but also the costs that these imply. Can the atom remain competitive with coal? Or do nuclear economics – when the costs of waste disposal and eventual plant decommissioning are cranked in – make it an unwise investment? Can the country risk nuclear plants in the proximity of populated areas, even with fail-safe measures? Can it afford to plunge ahead with nuclear power expansion before it is assured of an adequately long-term uranium supply or permanently safe repositories for spent fuel?

Pending definitive answers, both proponents and opponents of nuclear power will do well to resist hasty judgments. This is, in short, a logical time for a pause in the great national debate until all the facts are in on the nuclear balance sheet

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Editorial 2

The Birmingham News
Birmingham, Alabama
April 10, 1979

Judging by events thus far, the aftermath of the incident at Three Mile Island may be more harrowing than the accident itself. Anti-nuclear groups were out in force over the weekend from Pennsylvania to Oregon and fear, innuendo and assault on reason were the order of the day.

As work goes on toward shutting down the reactor, some sectors of government appear ready to try the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Babcock and Wilcox and metropolitan Edison for high treason. The private sector anti-nuclear groups have already tried them and found them guilty.

There have been a lot of charges and innuendo of irresponsibility, cover up, indifference to safety, etc., but few of those now holding kangaroo courts, including some in the media, have given any attention to crucial facts: (1) No one was killed in the accident; (2) No member of the public received as much radiation from the escaping gas and steam as they would on a flight from Harrisburg to Birmingham, or only one twentieth of what they received from fallout in the same area from the last Red Chinese atmospheric nuclear test; (3) Automatic fail-safe equipment was working perfectly but was turned off through human error, (4) The overall safety measures did work to prevent loss of life and polluted property outside the plant.

Private citizens in attempting to arrive at a reasonable position in regard to the events at Harrisburg and nuclear power generally should keep these facts in mind. They should keep in mind also that in the production of billions of kilowatt hours of electricity not a single human life has ever been lost in a reactor-related accident at a nuclear power plant, and that the reason Harrisburg was such big news was that it is the first accident of any significance.

Congress apparently is gong to conduct a full-scale investigation into causes and effects of the accident. And it should. But it is likely to bring forth more heat than light. Judging by statements by leading TV actors in both House and Senate, the investigation may be used to remove possibility of blame from Congress itself. That kind of investigation will not serve the public interest.

From reports out of the back door of the White House, President Carter was both angry and upset at the media coverage of the accident. Having worked with nuclear submarines, he has some slight knowledge of reactors, both the risks and the benefits. Before the accident, he was ready to push for more and faster licensing of nuclear power plants in the U.S. He will not be swayed by superstition or by doomsday prophesy, but unfortunately he probably will delay his campaign for more nuclear facilities until the political waters are calmer and a reasoned affirmation by Mr. Carter could help to put matters in perspective.

These conclusions, however, should be clear to Americans now: (1) We cannot cut power production by 14 percent, the proportion of power now generated by nuclear plants; (2) We cannot continue to increase our dependency on imported oil, and (3) Any fuel other than nuclear, gas and oil is going to produce pollution that may not be acceptable on the scale necessary to provide jobs for new millions coming into the work force each year. And that is something to think about.

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