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Three Mile Island neighbors recall crisis

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. -- Japan's nuclear crisis has transported residents of central Pennsylvania back 32 years, when the partial meltdown of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant raised fears that a massive amount of radiation could be released into the atmosphere or the Susquehanna River.

But there are stark differences between the disasters.

"It's probably not politically correct to say it, but TMI was a piece of cake compared to what they're facing over there in Fukushima, in terms of the problem," said Harold Denton, the federal nuclear engineer who became a calming, knowledgeable voice during the height of the Three Mile Island crisis in March and April of 1979.

As it is with the Fukushima reactors, the central challenge at Three Mile Island was reversing the loss of cooling water in the reactor core that in both cases exposed the highly radioactive fuel rods, increasing the threat of a complete fuel meltdown and a catastrophic release of radiation.

But the Fukushima and Three Mile Island parallel has its limits, nuclear experts say. The Japanese engineers are facing a dramatically more complex crisis with multiple problems and challenges never faced in Pennsylvania three decades ago.

At TMI, efforts were concentrated on dealing with a single reactor. Its problems began at 4 a.m. on March 28 when a pressure relief valve failed and stayed open for two hours. Because operators thought it had closed, they shut off an emergency flow of water that had been triggered automatically, worsening the situation and exposing the fuel rods.

A presidential commission later said the TMI accident was "the result of a series of human, institutional and mechanical failures."

By contrast, the Japan crisis resulted from a massive earthquake and tsunami that knocked out critical electric power and caused physical damage within the plant.

The people near the TMI site along the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania are watching the news from Japan with some familiarity.

"We tried to separate fact from fiction, dealt with experts who persisted in telling us either more than they knew or less than they knew. . . . We struggled to present accurate information," former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh said recently.

Robert Reid, who in 1979 was mayor of Middletown and still holds the office, says back then little attention was paid to having an evacuation plan at the ready. "There's not a week that goes by . . . that I don't sit down and talk about our evacuation plan and our disaster plan," he recently told the AP.

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