By Dave Warner
MIDDLETOWN, Pennsylvania (Reuters) - Judy Stare remembers the day 32 years ago when she and her family fled from the melting core of the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island.
On a day when the dangers of a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Japan dominated the front pages in the U.S., the memories of those days in 1979 on the banks of the Susquehanna River came back to haunt her as they did for many in this town of 8,700.
Middletown became the center of attention when Three Mile Island, two miles from its downtown, suffered the most serious nuclear accident in the nation's history.
Stare's three children were teenagers then, in high school in a nearby town, and she remembers yanking them out of school so the family could flee the danger area.
"I told them we might never be back," Stare, 70, recalled over breakfast at the popular Brownstone Cafe here.
She allowed them each to take a favorite thing, and remembers with crystal clarity what they brought: her oldest daughter grabbed a family photo album, her youngest daughter found her favorite doll, and her son brought a golf club. "Just like a man," she laughed.
On March 28, the first day of the accident, a mechanical or electrical failure on the turbine side of the building caused one of Three Mile Island's reactors to shut. To relieve the pressure that then built up, a relief valve opened. The valve should have closed when the pressure decreased but the valve remained open and coolant leaked out.
Operators did not realize the coolant was leaking and in the meantime the uranium fuel rods overheated and began to melt. By the time operators realized the coolant had leaked about half of the reactor core had already melted.
Three Mile Island was the worst nuclear power accident in the United States. The crisis lasted four days and was caused by a combination of personnel error, design deficiencies and component failures.
PEOPLE FEEL SAFER
Since Three Mile Island, U.S. authorities have required a strengthening of plant design and equipment, increased training for plant personnel, and an immediate notification of events, among other things.
Many in Middletown now say they feel safer because of what happened in 1979, including one of Stare's breakfast companions, Bill Taxweiler.
"It's the safest plant in the world," he said, citing the many safety changes that were made at the plant after the drama of that year.
His thoughts were echoed by a spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, an industry trade group.
"Three Mile Island unit 1 is one of the best operating plants in the world," wrote spokesman Tom Kauffman in an e-mail.
Originally, Three Mile Island had two units. The accident happened in unit 2, which has been permanently closed ever since.
Even some who live on state Route 441, no more than a few hundred yards from the hulking cooling towers, seem content with how things are now.
A householder working in his yard, the towers dominating the view across the road, said he just never thinks about any possible dangers from the nuclear plant.
Still, many in the town say the events in Japan are prompting them to remember the confusion and loss of trust that happened when they fled the area around the Three Mile Island plant, "We could not believe what we were told," Stare said.
Dan Thomasco, 59, another area resident who was there in 1979, said the Japanese crisis brought back many memories. He recalls he took his three dogs and went camping when the evacuation happened.
Many others, also advised to leave Middletown, he said, decided to wait out the crisis in a bar.
For all of the crisis atmosphere around at the time, a report by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, noting that the incident led to no deaths or injuries, explained that estimates of radiological exposure for the 2 million people in the area amounted to about one-sixth of what they might have received from a chest X-ray.
At the time of the crisis, Three Mile Island was owned by General Public Utilities, which has since been taken over. These days the plant is operated by Exelon Corp, the largest owner and operator of nuclear plants in the United States.
The company declined comment on Three Mile Island in light of the Japanese crisis. Instead, it referred calls to the industry trade group, the NEI, which said that the Japanese plants and Three Mile Island are of significantly different design.
(Additional reporting by Scott DiSavino in New York, editing by Martin Howell)