"It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare..."


The CBS Evening News began with these words
from Walter Cronkite on March 28, 1979


"It was the first step in a nuclear nightmare; as far as we know at this hour, no worse than that. But a government official said that a breakdown in an atomic power plant in Pennsylvania today is probably the worst nuclear reactor accident to date. There was no apparent serious contamination of workers. But, a nuclear safety group said that radiation inside the plant is at eight times the deadly level, so strong that after passing through a three-foot thick concrete wall, it can be measured a mile away."

The report was wrong, but this was how the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) explained the offsite radiation levels. Trying to avoid uncomfortable words like "accident" and "release," the NRC instead worsened the public fear that they had hoped to avoid. A recording of the Commissioners that day reveals the debate on the wording to be used:

NRC Commissioner Kennedy: "...do you think they're going to understand what it means, direct radiation from the stuff inside the containment?"

NRC Commissioner Gilinsky: "It is useful to say that... otherwise you get yourself caught up in how much has been released."

The media had its first day of many confusing, misleading and contradicting statements issued by the nuclear experts.