This morning a group of roughly 30 people gathered at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island – the site of America's worst commercial nuclear disaster – to commemorate the 32nd anniversary of the accident, to pray for Japan, and to protest expanding nuclear power in the U.S.
Participants of the 3:30 am candlelight vigil at the gates of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant included former residents who lived nearby when the 1979 nuclear accident occurred. Protesters from such groups as No Nukes Pennsylvania, Three Mile Island Alert (TMI Alert) and Academics for a Nuclear Free Future (ANUFF) also participated in the demonstration.
Though none of the groups publicly espouse any religious connections, they held prayers for the Japanese people who have been evacuated from Tokyo due to harmful levels of radiation from quake-damaged Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant.
Nuclear power opponents urged the United States to freeze nuclear power production, which China has done, and to drop any plans to continue with nuclear power in the future.
Toshi Sasao, a professor of psychology and peace studies at Tokyo's International Christian University, praised the protest groups' efforts in a letter. "This is very encouraging and it is a wonderful action for all of us who have been concerned with the nuclear issue," he wrote.
According to facts provided by the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, a valve malfunction discovered at 3:53 am on March 28, 1979 caused half the fuel to melt in one of two nuclear reactors on the island near Harrisburg, Pa. Large quantities of radioactive material leaked from the reactor. State officials had advised pregnant women and children to leave the area for fear they would be affected by the radiation.
"As plants age, we knew that [industry] profit motives rather than safety motives meant there was going to be another accident," said Gene Stilp, the organizer of the Three Mile Island protest and No Nukes Pennsylvania member, to the German Press Agency dpa.
He urged the United States to discontinue producing nuclear energy, expressing doubt in U.S. nuclear power plants' preparedness for unforeseen natural disasters. "You can't control mother nature," he reasoned.
However, proponents with the U.S. Nuclear Energy Foundation are urging Americans to get educated about the issue before they write it off. USNEF Director Gary Duarte said too much stock is being put into the fear surrounding Fukushima power plant. "Yes there are issues," he said. But "as we have in previous nuclear mishaps, we've learned by them."
Additionally, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, Richard Land, warned, "If we do not want to see a substantial drop in our standard of living in the next couple of years in the United States, we need to be building nuclear power plants."
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has told Congress that the Obama administration plans to continue to fund new nuclear power plants. Also, existing U.S. nuclear power plants have not halted their production.
"The people in the United States, U.S. territories, are in no danger," Chu said during a Fox News Sunday broadcast. "It's unlikely they will be exposed to danger."
Chu and Nuclear Regulatory Commission Chairman Gregory Jaczko also testified at an energy subcommittee hearing earlier this month that they were actively learning lessons from Fukushima.
"We continue every day to make sure the plants are safe," said Jaczko, highlighting the inspections and safety drills U.S. nuclear power plants must undergo regularly.
Exelon Nuclear, the current operator of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, reports it is a much safer plant now after the 1979 accident.
"The lessons learned from the TMI accident has been ingrained in the operation of TMI Unit 1. It's ingrained in our people; it's ingrained in our processes," Ralph Desantis, spokesman for Exelon Nuclear, told local television station WGAL.