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The American Experience

Suggestions for the Classroom


Time Period: 1979
Themes: nuclear power; the 1970s energy crisis; the role of government; industrial accidents; community, industry, and government responses to disasters


    photo of man wearing respirator On the morning of March 28, 1979, a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suddenly overheated. During the tension-packed week that followed, scientists scrambled to prevent the nightmare of a nuclear meltdown, officials tried to calm public fears and more than one hundred thousand residents fled the area. Equipment failure, human error, and bad luck would conspire to create an event that stunned the nation.


Before Watching

  1. Ask students what they know about nuclear energy. How much do they think this country depends on it? Is there a nuclear power plant in your community? What are the benefits of nuclear energy? What are the risks?



After Watching

  1. Even though Three Mile Island was designed to be fail-safe, human intervention -- both by the operators and by the local and national government -- made a problem into a crisis. Do you think if the plant had been allowed to handle the situation without any human intervention, the crisis would have been averted? Do you think you could have stood by to see if the problem would have solved itself, knowing what the potential consequences could be? What does this imply about the limits of technology?

  2. According to the documentary, nuclear power appeared to offer a low-cost, relatively non-polluting solution which offset the shortages and price hikes of the 1970s energy crisis. However, the Hollywood film, "The China Syndrome," was needed at the press briefing to help reporters understand what was happening at Three Mile Island. How can we as a society make good decisions about science and technology if it is becoming too complex for the average citizen to understand? What systems can we put in place that will help overcome this situation?

  3. Have students interview their parents or other adults about their memories of the meltdown at Three Mile Island. As a class, pull together an oral history of the event or create a bulletin board display including personal accounts, newspaper clippings, and information about the current state of nuclear energy.

  4. Break students into teams and have each team research a different type of energy: electric, nuclear, hydroelectric, wind, solar, etc. Have teams report the following information: How is their form of energy produced? What are the benefits and costs? Where is it most prevalent (both within this country and in other countries)? Who provides it? After teams present, discuss what students think about the different forms of energy. What do they think should be the energy policy for your community or the country? As a follow-up, students can research how decisions about energy are made both locally and nationally.

  5. The worst international nuclear accident was the accident at Chernobyl. Have students research this incident and the reports of longterm effects to the surrounding countryside.



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