Today’s post is written by David Langbart, an Archivist in the Textual Records Division at the National Archives at College Park.
On March 28, 1979, a nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island outside Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, experienced a partial meltdown. While ultimately there was no large-scale release of radioactive materials, the potential for a major disaster existed as demonstrated by the Chernobyl catastrophe in the USSR in 1986. The crisis situation ended on April 1, although cleanup efforts continued for years.[i]
While most Americans looked at the Three Mile Island incident as a potential domestic disaster, it clearly had international ramifications and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the agency with domestic oversight of the nuclear power industry, worked with the Department of State to keep American diplomats and their international associates overseas informed of the conditions at Three Mile Island. Unlike the Soviets just seven years later with Chernobyl, the U.S. took immediate steps to notify other countries about what was going on there.
Coincidentally, just nine weeks before the reactor at Three Mile Island malfunctioned, the Department of State had provided pertinent overseas missions with contact information for foreign nuclear energy regulatory officials, called “NRC Technical Notification Addressees,” to which the NRC would send information on important regulatory actions, operating incidents, and other matters of immediate interest through those missions.[ii] The Department sent that instruction to the posts in Athens, Bern, Bombay, Bonn, Brasilia, Brussels, Copenhagen, Helsinki, London, Madrid, Manila, Mexico city, New Delhi, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Seoul, Stockholm, Taipei, Tehran, Tel Aviv, The Hague, Tokyo, Vienna and the U.S. missions to the European Economic Commission (EEC), the International Atomic Energy Administration (IAEA), and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).
Within hours of the beginning of the incident at Three Mile Island, the Department sent the following telegram asking that missions implement the notification process (from the RG 59 Central Foreign Policy Files (NAID 654098)).