Remembering a nuclear moment of presidential leadership

It’s probably a generational thing — it happened long ago, afterall — but a small news story brought back big memories.

The Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania is closing. It’s been losing money for years, NPR says, and the nuclear industry is dying.

And one reason it is: Three Mile Island.

The partial meltdown at the plant in 1979 pretty much halted nuclear power as an option in the United States.

A full meltdown at Unit 2 (Unit 1 is the one still running) was less than an hour away, thanks to human error.

But that’s not actually the memory I had today when hearing the news.

This is:

Wearing protective boots, then President Carter, center right, accompanied by Dr. Harold Denton, then Director of the U.S. Nuclear Agency, left, and then Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburg, left-rear, tour the control room of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Middletown, Pa. on April 1, 1979, four days after the nuclear accident. (AP Photo/Rusty Kennedy)

With a nation in a panic, President Jimmy Carter, a nuclear engineer, took a stroll inside the plant to prove that the East Coast wasn’t about to be radioactive.

The Washington Post at the time had the story of a moment of presidential leadership.

Among the factors that fed into the decision making was Carter’s belief that the media had exaggerated the dangers and had unduly alarmed the public. In his autobiography, Carter had written of his “confidence in the safety of the reactors which we studied and operated.” He did not like to see that confidence shaken by others less informed than he.

On Friday, Carter had ordered his staff to assemble all of the television coverage of the nuclear power plant events from the previous evening’s news and that morning’s; he watched videotapes of the entire coverage of all three networks at noon.

“There are too many people talking,” Carter had told Powell back in Washington. “And my impression is that half of them don’t know what they are talking about . . . Get those people to speak with one voice.”

Yet, as Carter viewed it, the exaggerated coverage had continued, raising public fears the level of public understanding.

The Associated Press reported at the time, there was a gas bubble inside the plant that could become explosive. Thousands of people might have to be evacuated.

That story was the “crowning blow” for Carter.

“I felt perfectly safe last Sunday when I was in the control room just a hundred feet away from the reactor core itself,” he told journalists later. “The level of radiation was carefully monitored even before they found out the president was coming.”

A little less than two months ago, Jimmy Carter became the longest living U.S. president in history.