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This Day in History: America’s Worst Nuclear Fears Realized at Three Mile Island Plant 

Thirty-eight years ago today — March 28, 1979 — disaster struck at 4 a.m. at the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant in central Pennsylvania after its cooling system failed.

It remains the worst nuclear accident in American history.


A simple plumbing failure prevented the main feedwater pumps from sending water to generators that remove heat from the plant’s core reactor.  


During those pre-dawn hours, the temperature of the reactor rose steadily even as staffers were unaware that a valve in the emergency cooling system had become stuck in place, allowing cool water to flow through the valve — not reaching the reactor. 

Instruments in the control room misled operators, who thought the cooling system was working normally.

As coolant flowed from the primary system through the valve, other instruments available to reactor operators provided inadequate information. There was no instrument that showed how much water covered the core. As a result, plant staff assumed that as long as the pressurizer water level was high, the core was properly covered with water. 

As alarms rang and warning lights flashed, the operators did not realize that the plant was experiencing a loss-of-coolant accident — or, rather, the beginnings of a nuclear meltdown.  And just after 6:00 am, data indicated the core reactor had overheated so much that radiation was detected inside the control room.

Half the core was later found to have melted. 


By the evening of March 28, the core appeared to be adequately cooled and the reactor appeared to be stable. 

But new concerns arose by the morning of March 30.

A significant release of radiation from the plant’s auxiliary building, performed by operators to relieve pressure on the primary system and avoid curtailing the flow of coolant to the core, sparked public concerns and consternation among politicians. 


​In an atmosphere of growing uncertainty and concern, then-Governor Dick Thornburgh, consulted with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) about evacuating the population near the plant.

Eventually, he and NRC Chairman Joseph Hendrie agreed that it would be prudent for those members of society most vulnerable to radiation to evacuate the area.

Thornburgh announced that he was advising pregnant women and pre-school-age children within a five-mile (8 km) radius of the plant to leave the area.

The national and international media had given the accident at Three Mile Island front page attention for days.  Then-President Jimmy Carter decided a frightened nation needed his presence. On April 1, Carter went to inspect the damaged plant.

In the months following the accident, questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal and plant life around the nuclear power plant, although none could be directly correlated to the accident. 

Thousands of environmental samples of air, water, milk, vegetation, soil and foodstuffs were collected by various government agencies monitoring the area. 

In 1997, researchers from Environmental Health Perspectives, the journal of the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Science concluded increases in lung cancer and leukemia near the Pennsylvania plant suggested a much greater release of radiation during the 1979 accident than had been believed.


The accident sparked sweeping safety regulations. The damaged reactor, on the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, was never restarted. No new commercial nuclear power plant was licensed by the federal government until 2012.

But an article written by Michael Grunwald published in Time magazine in 2009 summed up Three Mile Island this way:

“The TMI fiasco was a scary cultural moment…But there was nothing particularly tragic about it. It didn’t kill people. It didn’t kill nuclear power.”

Nourishing the World One Little Girl at a Time

In the U.S. and Africa, communities of African descendants are experiencing a high rate of diet related disorders like diabetes and heart disease, and one Nigerian-American woman in Washington wants to change that.

Nutritionist Tambra Raye Stevenson is on a mission to inspire young girls and women in the diaspora and in Africa to embrace their heritage from farm to fork and become leaders in nutrition.

Stevenson, who defines the kitchen as her destressing space, last year launched a nonprofit called WANDA, which stands for Women Advancing Nutrition, Dietetics, and Agriculture.

Based in Washington and Nigeria, WANDA focuses on developing the next generation of women and girls as leaders in nutrition.

‘Army of women’

“My daughter who was going to school and the teacher didn’t feel the need to have healthy food in the classroom,” Stevenson said. “And I thought the only way to combat this is to have an army of women who care about creating a healthier generation and it starts with us as women to take back our communities.”

She also sees a huge food challenge: the United Nations has declared a Decade of Action on Nutrition, and the World Health Organization has estimated 4 million people in Africa will die of non-communicable diseases like diabetes and heart attacks by 2020.

“Without any intervention we will find ourselves in the same crisis as we have with AIDS, malaria and TB,” Stevenson said.

A nutritionist, she founded NativSol Kitchen in Washington and partners with local groups in African countries.

“I focus mainly on providing nutrition education, cooking demos, lectures in America and abroad,” Stevenson said. “And it was from doing that that really sparked me of seeing the need that more girls across the world like in Africa need to know that nutrition is a career. It’s not just about good nutrition and our bodies.”

She shares her discoveries of African heritage foods such as hibiscus flowers, which are used to flavor drinks and are believed to benefit heart health.

‘Powerful tool’

“Food is a powerful tool. It can either heal us or kill us. Food also is identity; we see ourselves as a reflection of what we eat on our plates, in our bowls, in our hands,” she said.

Seeing a lack of children characters in nutritional literature, Stevenson created Little WANDA and recently released a bilingual children’s book series, Where’s WANDA?

Little Wanda is an engaging role model for girls tackling a food and health issues in the community with the help of Big Wanda, a food entrepreneur.

“It’s really important to know it is a community effort to support the Little Wanda in our communities to become like the next Big Wanda and that’s what the story does,” Stevenson said.

Nikki Wood, who attended a recent event with her two young children, supports the program.

“(It is) another way we can support other women who are doing great work especially trying to educate our children and goes our community on better eating and health from a global perspective. I am just excited about it,” Wood said.

Nourishing the World One Little Girl at a Time

In the U.S. and Africa, communities of African descendants are experiencing a high rate of diet related disorders like diabetes and heart disease. A Nigerian American in Washington wants to change that. Nutritionist Tambra Raye Stevenson is on a mission to inspire young girls and women in the diaspora and in Africa to embrace their heritage from farm to fork and become leaders in nutrition. VOA’s June Soh caught up with Stevenson at a recent event to promote her initiative.

Exoskeleton Makes Lifting Easier

Lifting boxes by hand, day after day, in places like warehouses can cause muscle strain and other injuries. But now a new exoskeleton — a rigid external body frame that assists with limb movement can help prevent problems associated with repetitive tasks like handling boxes or materials at construction sites. VOA’s Deborah Block tells us more about it.

Human Heart Cells Grown on Spinach Leaves

Spinach is known as a super food for its nutritional value, but a new experiment reveals another power of the green leaf.

Researchers say they’ve grown beating human heart cells on spinach leaves, using the vascular network of the plant to transport fluids. The finding could eventually lead to being able to grow working human cardiac tissue that could one day be used to replace heart cells damaged by heart attacks.

“Plants and animals exploit fundamentally different approaches to transporting fluids, chemicals, and macromolecules, yet there are surprising similarities in their vascular network structures,” said researchers from Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI), the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Arkansas State University-Jonesboro. “The development of decellularized plants for scaffolding opens up the potential for a new branch of science that investigates the mimicry between plant and animal.”

The breakthrough is important because so far, bioengineering such as 3-D printing, can’t replicate the complex system of blood vessels in the human body that deliver the oxygen, nutrients, and essential molecules required for proper tissue growth.

For the experiment, researchers first stripped plant cells from spinach leaves and passed beads the size of human blood cells through the leftover vascular system and seeded the spinach veins with human cells that line our blood vessels.

“We have a lot more work to do, but so far this is very promising,” said Glenn Gaudette, PhD, professor of biomedical engineering at WPI and corresponding author of the paper. “Adapting abundant plants that farmers have been cultivating for thousands of years for use in tissue engineering could solve a host of problems limiting the field.”

Researchers added that other plants have been shown to offer the same kind of promise, including parsley, Artemesia annua (sweet wormwood), and peanut hairy roots.

“The spinach leaf might be better suited for a highly vascularized tissue, like cardiac tissue, whereas the cylindrical hollow structure of the stem of Impatiens capensis (jewelweed) might better suit an arterial graft. Conversely, the vascular columns of wood might be useful in bone engineering due to their relative strength and geometries,” the authors wrote.

Using plants could also be economical.

“By exploiting the benign chemistry of plant tissue scaffolds,” researchers wrote, “we could address the many limitations and high costs of synthetic, complex composite materials. Plants can be easily grown using good agricultural practices and under controlled environments. By combining environmentally-friendly plant tissue with perfusion-based decellularization, we have shown that there can be a sustainable solution for pre-vascularized tissue engineering scaffolds.”

The paper, “Crossing kingdoms: Using decelluralized plants as perfusable tissue engineering scaffolds” is published online in advance of the May 2017 issue of the journal Biomaterials.