May 10, 2004

Nuclear TV: PBS' Look Back at TMI, NOVA's Back to Chernobyl

(UPDATE 6/14/12: While "Meltdown at Three Mile Island" and "Back to Chernobyl" are not to my knowledge available on PBS' website, or through services like Netflix (unlike many other titles in the excellent American Experience series), with a little searching you should have little trouble finding them on YouTube in most countries.)

While you won't find many nuclear-energy related videos at your local video store (documentaries, anyway) there are some noteworthy releases available at libraries and at retail - mostly from transcription dealers and "deep-catalog" mail order outlets like Being fortunate enough to have access to resources like the University of Chicago and Harold Washington libraries, I tracked down some excellent programs I'd like to recommend: but I should mention that none of the titles here are available in DVD format at this point, only as VHS tapes.

PBS' The American Experience: Meltdown at Three Mile Island (60 min.) replays the events of America's worst nuclear accident in 1979. With vintage news footage and contemporary interviews with key response team players like former Pennsylvania governor Dick Thornburgh and Attorney Governor William Scranton, this documentary is an exceptional inside look back at those panicked days near Harrisburg. This was a personally fascinating retrospective for me; not only for the content, but because I was living in Central New Jersey - less than two hours away by car from Three Mile Island - at the time of the accident.

As you watch the events unfold, what comes to mind is how unnecessary much of the TMI media confusion was in retrospect, although it may have been unavoidable at the time. For hours on end, emergency responders and the PA governor's office were unable to reach the power plant's operators, because the ordinary landlines were jammed tight with reporters' calls from around the country. No "Red Phone" hot-line was active, no two-way radio, and of course, no cell phones: the stricken plant was essentially incommunicado during some of the most crucial hours.

NOVA: Back to Chernobyl (originally aired February 14th, 1989) is an out-of-print title, but well worth tracking down, and you may likely find a copy at a library near you. Correspondent Bill Kurtis travels to the Soviet Union for a visit to the reactor site three years after the incident, and speaks with a number of survivors and eyewitnesses. Darkly humorous are the scenes with Kurtis' chatty ushanka-capped [уша́нка], Geiger counter-toting liason, Dr. Richard Wilson, who tries to reassure the journalist that the rather alarming radiation readings are nothing to worry about:
Kurtis: "Professor, how far do you think we are now from the reactor?"
Wilson: "Oh, about 30 miles."
Kurtis: "Should we check the readings?"
Wilson: "You’ll hear a high-pitched whistle as it checks the battery first. You’ll begin to hear some clicking as the readings start coming in. That’s a pretty good background, about the same as it was in Kiev. Let me just check the instrument. I’ll pull a source out of my case here."
Kurtis: "That level would seem to be the natural background."
Wilson: "That’s the natural background, but now you can test the beta ray [remember these are really particles] source, and you can hear it clicking furiously."
Kurtis: "What will the level be around the reactor itself?"
Wilson: "On this scale, around the reactor itself, we’ll find the reading to be off-scale, and we’ll have to change to the next scale. It’s about 30 times the background level around the reactor itself."
Kurtis: "Will that be any danger to us?"
Wilson: "No, you can be there for a year and get the amount of radiation that a worker is allowed to have in a year."
If you can't locate a copy of the tape, try this 2001 online document by Steve Cooperman containing a partial transcript with detailed notes on the program available from UCLA [ (Caveat: Microsoft Word™ .doc]

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