No one saw the uranium pellets melt into a puddle of nuclear waste.
Yet the entire world watched as helicopters buzzed about, testing for radiation. It looked on as children and pregnant women evacuated the area. And in the following days and weeks, the world tuned in as experts and analysts explained the series of setbacks that had dominoed Three Mile Island toward what seemed to be certain disaster.
On March 28, 1979, the world witnessed America's largest nuclear mishap.
"And I was there, working at the plant," Tom Kauffman said.
'Make no mistake ...'
Three decades later, Kauffman, who now works as spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute, watched President Barack Obama deliver an announcement intended to change the nuclear industry's future.
In February, Obama said he would give $8 billion worth of loans to a proposed nuclear plant, which, if built, would be the first such facility constructed in the U.S. since 1996.
"Make no mistake," Obama said, "if we fail to invest in the technologies of tomorrow, then we're going to be importing these technologies instead of exporting them. We will fall behind ... and that's not a future that I accept."
The administration's approval of nuclear power bolstered Kauffman. For too long, he'd heard about his industry's past rather than its future, and he knows why.
"So many people, when they talk about nuclear power, they talk about incidents like Three Mile Island," he said. "That one event really was a slap in the face to the industry."
The nuclear mishap dealt a blow to an industry affecting almost every American, Kauffman said.
If you don't live in one of the estimated 323.4 million households receiving electricity from the world's 437 operating nuclear reactors, then you benefit from the cleaner air provided by these facilities, says the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
This is far from just big city technology. In fact, living in the Midwest raises your chances of being close to a plant.
Illinois ranks No. 1 for states with the most nuclear plants, six, with a total of 11 reactors. Wisconsin runs two, and Iowa boasts one. Dubuque sits close to two plants -- one near Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and the other in Byron, Ill., a small community near Rockford.
With Obama's endorsement of nuclear power, the landscapes of communities nationwide could change in the coming years, Kauffman said, as he expects the president's statement to galvanize what he deems the ongoing "nuclear renaissance."
But as with any revival, the industry first experienced a decline, despite the claims of many communities that nuclear facilities brought seemingly endless benefits.
'Build another one...'
Byron, Ill., looks small and sleepy, as if Sheriff Andy Taylor colored it in with a Mayberry-tinted crayon. However, a quick drive through town reveals a less provincial past.
The school is massive, modern and state-of-the-art. The library is large enough to be mistaken for the community's hospital. The museum boasts impressive exhibits, and the fire station looks brand-new. The park department sports a top-notch nature center, golf course and observatory.
Not what you'd expect in a community of 3,900, said Jim Harrison, Ogle County Supervisor of Assessments.
Then there's the most obvious landmark -- two 495-feet high cone-shaped towers that mark the Byron Nuclear Generating Station.
"We're a whole different town because of that plant and the money it provides," he said.
According to Harrison, the plant was assessed at $460 million in 2009 for its buildings.
This past year, that assessment resulted in the Byron Nuclear Generating Station splitting almost $28.9 million between 10 tax districts, with the largest portion -- some $16.3 million -- going to the Byron School District.
"I don't think there's been any real downside to that plant being here," Harrison said. "In fact, I think a lot of people would like to see them build another one right next to it."
'Energy that caused harm'
When Americans saw the nuclear cloud mushrooming above Japan at the end of World War II, few anticipated the tragedy resulting in a business boom.
"But the government recognized that that same energy that caused harm could also be used for energy production," Kauffman said.
By the 1950s, plants began popping up across America. As the technology grew, so did its popularity, and in the 1980s, 45 nuclear plants were built. But the nuclear bubble was bursting, just as the Three Mile Island incident hit the news.
"The gap (between supply and demand) started right around the time of the accident," Kauffman said. "We had an oil embargo around that time, a recession and high inflation, and all that had an impact on growth and the need for energy. Couple that with the Three Mile Island incident, and construction stopped."
In the 1990s, five plants were built. Between 2000 and 2010, not one plant opened.
'It's still the same town'
Nanette Gibson wonders why people wouldn't want a nuclear plant near them.
"Nothing really happened to Byron because of the plant, besides growing astronomically," she said. "It's still the same town, with the same people. Yes, we have better buildings, and yes, we're more diverse, but nothing bad's happened, if that's what you're asking."
Some 690 new workers came to the area for plant positions, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and together they account for a payroll of about $60 million -- an average salary of nearly $90,000 a year.
Gibson also found work through the plant, although not directly inside it, as she worked at a Subway store on site.
"I felt safe then, and I feel safe now," she said.
About seven miles north of Gibson's job in downtown Byron, the Rev. Brion Brooks watched his 6-year-old son, Isaac, practice riding a bike against the backdrop of the nuclear facility.
"They're really cool," Isaac said of the two cooling towers at the neighboring plant.
Although it stands a mile away, the plant looms so large that Brion and Isaac Brooks seem close enough to touch it.
"It's definitely a landmark, I'll put it that way," Brooks said.
He moved his family to Byron eight months ago when he accepted the preaching position at Ebenezer Reformed Church.
"I did a Google Maps view of the church, and then I panned out and saw the parsonage and thought it looked nice, and then I panned out a little more and saw the plant," he said. "I expect it would bother some people living right next door, but I feel safe. It's there, but it doesn't have a daily impact on our lives by any means. Really, I'd be more worried living next to a prison."
Trusting the doctors
Dubuque resident Darrell "Ed" Weigert might not live next to anything nuclear, but he said he believes nuclear substances have a health impact.
The now 72-year-old man spent a year in the 1950s working in the Iowa Ordnance Plant, a munitions factory near Burlington that manufactured atomic weapons during the Korean and Vietnam conflicts. The factory employed as many as 8,000 people in the 1960s.
"It was a job," he said. "At the time, people were hard up for work, so if it was a job, you took it, period, and you didn't ask a lot of questions."
He begin making inquiries, however, after his dad and uncle died of cancer. Both had careers at the munitions plant.
"You have to assume that was work related, but that's only my assumption," he said. "I only know it's always in the back of my mind, what could happen to me because I worked there."
Weigert is one of eight to 10 Dubuque residents regularly undergoing medical tests performed by the Former Worker Medical Screening Program, a program designed to monitor the health of Iowa's nuclear facility workers.
"I've got to trust that the doctors at these screenings will catch things if they come up," he said. "But to say that there's no connection ... well, I figure something has to be related, or otherwise the government wouldn't be paying for the screening, now would they?"
Dr. Charles Winterwood, of Dubuque, has none of the calm acceptance of nuclear power as many Byron residents do.
As chairman of the White Pine Group, the local affiliate of the Sierra Club, he said both he and the organization oppose nuclear power and all it stands for.
"It's just not renewable," he said. "Solar power, that comes from the sun. That's renewable. Wind power obviously comes from the wind, which is obviously renewable. Nuclear power comes from uranium, and that will eventually run out."
Kauffman, of the Nuclear Energy Institute, agrees that the uranium is limited.
"But it is abundant," he said.
He cited research showing that the readily available uranium resources will last another 80 years worldwide at the current consumption rate. Additionally, he said, there is an untapped amount of uranium estimated to provide another 200 years of energy with current consumption rates.
The problem, Winterwood argues, is that an increase of nuclear power plants would chip away at the amount of time left, and soon, he said, the abundant source will cease being so.
'Here's this deadly material'
For now, the Rev. Brooks said he remains content living next to the plant because the waste is stored onsite. He'd worry if the waste was driven past his home, however.
So he should, Winterwood said. According to Sierra Club research, nuclear waste remains toxic to humans for 200,000 years.
"Right now, nobody has any real place to store it," he said. "What we're doing is saying to future generations, 'Here's this deadly material. We didn't know what to do with it. You figure it out.'"
Kauffman said the solution is being debated by the world's best professionals.
Congress considered storing the nation's nuclear waste at a facility in Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but President Obama opposes the location, saying it is unstable, and his administration formed a commission to address the waste issue.
"It's going to be dealt with," Kauffman said. "We're seeing light at the end of the tunnel."
He encourages the public to focus on nuclear energy's selling point -- clean.
"That's what it is," he said. "Nuclear power has very low, low carbon emissions. It's right on par with wind and geothermal."
Still, Winterwood pushes back, arguing that nuclear power does emit some carbon, while solar and wind would provide energy for longer periods of time with no carbon emissions.
Additionally, Winterwood worries that nuclear power plants could easily be a terrorist target, to which Kauffman responds that a nuclear power plant cannot explode.
"It's physically impossible," he said. "They cannot blow up like a bomb."
'After Three Mile Island ...'
Kauffman remembers the day that scared a nation.
"I was in my second year at (Three Mile Island), and I remember that in the plant, there was no panic. Everybody was very calm," he said. "Yes, it was a serious moment, but I remember that we knew the crisis was over. But outside the plant, people didn't really know what was going on, so there was a lot of speculation, a lot of fear."
Despite the immediate panic that a nuclear disaster would emerge, no one was hurt during the meltdown, and a dozen governmental agencies have said no adverse health affects occurred as a result of the incident. Workers experienced less radiation exposure during the incident than they would have after a chest X-ray.
Still, the meltdown rattled the nation's trust in nuclear plants' safety, so while little about nuclear power production has changed in the decades since, the message has.
"The thing that's really altered since then is the focus," Kauffman said. "After Three Mile Island, the industry realized it needed to let the public know just how safe nuclear power is."
'Think 400 years in the future'
Safe or not, nuclear power will never be the answer to sustainable energy, opponents say.
"Think 400 years into the future," Winterwood, of the Sierra Club, said. "It won't be there. But the solar power, the wind power, all of that will still have a place."
Kauffman knows this.
"I wish I had a crystal ball to tell you what nuclear power's role will be. I do know it is going to take decades, if not centuries, to make the transition to all sustainable energy sources," he said. "But right now, we need cleaner options. But who knows? In that time, we could find an entirely new energy source. I once heard somebody say that there could be a point when we may not even need electricity at all."
(Photo Credit: Nick Suydam)