The Three Mile Island Crisis: Psychological, Social, and Economic Impacts on the Surrounding Population

The Three Mile Island Crisis: Psychological, Social, and Economic Impacts on the Surrounding Population

The Three Mile Island Crisis: Psychological, Social, and Economic Impacts on the Surrounding Population

The Three Mile Island Crisis: Psychological, Social, and Economic Impacts on the Surrounding Population


This work presents a record of how people living in the vicinity of the Three Mile Island power plant were affected by the nuclear accident on March 28, 1979. Over an 18-month period following the accident, 3,649 telephone interviews were conducted in order to assess the psychological, social, and economic effects of the incident, and these are presented here. The results of other investigators' studies of the TMI crisis, as well as of similar studies of other types of crises, are summarized.

Five major findings are detailed: First, evacuation was extensive and involved many more people than those included in the governor's advisory. Second, the short-term economic impact on the area adjacent to the power plant was less than for most disasters, but the long-term impact was greater. Third, levels of concern (stress-related symptoms and attitudes) about TMI were higher among those close to the plant than among those 40 to 55 miles away, and this persisted for over a year following the accident. Fourth, people living near TMl tended to overestimate the effects of the accident on real estate values, physical and mental health, and numbers of persons moving out of the area. And, fifth, people who took action to try to cope with the perceived danger were more likely than others to remain upset about TMI as time passed.

Further, three characteristics of the TMI crisis were noted: the danger (radiation) was difficult to see, measure, or understand; the public was dependent on experts to assess the danger; and the power company, Metropolitan Edison, was blamed for the accident and thus lost the trust of the people. The significance of these characteristics and their affect on the accident's impact are presented and assessed.

This book will be important to scholars who study the social and political significance of the TMI crisis, to planners who prepare for public emergencies, and to social scientists who try to understand why people respond as they do to crisis situations.

Penn State Study No. 49


The Three Mile Island accident, unlike natural disasters such as floods, hurricanes, earthquakes, or major fires, left no immediate physical alterations in the surrounding environment. On the other hand, it did cause an extensive evacuation of persons living near the facility, substantial short-term economic impact on both individuals and companies in the area, and significant psychological disturbances among persons living in its vicinity. These effects resulted from fears about radiation releases from the damaged reactor and concerns about possible immediate and long-term effects on people's health. In addition, incomplete and often confusing information about radiation releases received by the local residents during and after the crisis further intensified their distress.

Since the March 1979 accident at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant, many studies have assessed its impacts. Compiled and summarized in this book are the results of five related surveys, all aimed at the scientific assessment of the psycho-socio-economic behavior of the residents around the TMI facility. These studies are important because they are based on a randomly selected, large sample of the population (with telephones) around TMI. Because of this, the results can be trusted as being representative of that population. Furthermore, the studies were conducted over a fifteen-month period, making it possible to examine how reactions to the crisis changed over time.

Another strength of this book is that the studies presented here are the products of close interagency cooperation involving collaboration among government (state and federal) agencies, independent research organizations, and universities. Furthermore, the designs and findings of much of the data reported here have been reviewed and supported by the TMI Advisory Panel for Health Research Studies of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, which consists of experts in the different disciplines relevant to the TMI crisis and from various academic and governmental institutions.

The behavioral studies reported in this book represent an important part of the overall health studies, including epidemiologic inquiries, related to the TMI accident. It should be noted that the data presented here are essentially "reported" by individuals residing in the vicinity of the TMI facility. Limitations and qualifications of this type of data, in contrast to epidemiologic data, are duely described by the authors. Since the amount of radiation released during the TMI accident was officially reported to be minimal, the psycho-

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