International Aspects of the Three Mile Island Incident I: Keeping the World Informed

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)).

1979STATE077697.1

Dept of State to Multiple Addresses, Telegram 077697, March 28, 1979. STATE077697, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/Electronic Telegrams, RG 59, p1

1979STATE077697.2

Dept of State to Multiple Addresses, Telegram 077697, March 28, 1979. STATE077697, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/Electronic Telegrams, RG 59, p2

Thereafter, the Department sent a series of telegrams reporting on the situation using information provided by the NRC.  See:

  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 078113, March 29, 1979, 1979STATE078113[iii]
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 078236, March 29, 1979, 1979STATE078236
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 078588, March 29, 1979, 1979STATE078588
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 080059, March 31, 1979, 1979STATE080059
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 081316, March 31, 1979, 1979STATE081316
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 081702, April 1, 1979, 1979STATE081702

Even after the crisis had passed, the Department continued to pass on the NRC’s reports.  See:

  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 082199, April 3, 1979, 1979STATE082199
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 083615, April 4, 1979, 1979STATE083615
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 084210, April 4, 1979, 1979STATE084210
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 084783, April 5, 1979, 1979STATE084783
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 085946, April 7, 1979, 1979STATE085946
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 089682, April 10, 1979, 1979STATE089682
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 090811, April 12, 1979, 1979STATE090811
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 108489, April 29, 1979, 1979STATE108489
  • Department of State to Multiple Addressees, Telegram 131536, May 23, 1979, 1979STATE131536

Near the end of April, the Department sent a wrap-up message of sorts to all American embassies overseas and several other missions for use as background and guidance when responding to inquiries about the Three Mile Island incident.


[i] For an overview, see U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Backgrounder: Three Mile Island Accident and J. Samuel Walker Three Mile Island: A Nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective (Berkeley: The University of California Press, 2004).


[ii]
Department of State to Multiple Posts, Airgram A-0221, January 22, 1979, P790010-1090, Central Foreign Policy Files, 1973-79/P-Reel Printouts, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

[iii] All referenced telegrams can be viewed online from the “Diplomatic Records” page of Access to Archival Databases using the message reference number (e.g. – 1979STATE078113) as the search term.

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One Response to International Aspects of the Three Mile Island Incident I: Keeping the World Informed

  1. dlabinsky says:

    Tweeted this on the @CarterLibrary account

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