How Three Mile Island and the nuclear industry influenced pop culture via WITF

Written by Lisa Wardle, Digital Manager |

This March marks the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. WITF is collaborating with PA Post and PennLive on a multimedia, monthlong look at the accident, its impact and the future of TMI and the nuclear industry. That includes new documentary television and radio programs, long-form audio stories, photos, and digital videos. The work will include the voices of people affected as well as community events to engage with listeners, readers and viewers.

Diane Sandnes was nervous about living only a few miles from a nuclear plant. So on March 28, 1979, when she heard there was an accident at Three Mile Island, she decided it was safest to keep her 6-year-old son, Adam, indoors.

“We just didn’t like the reports coming out of there,” Edward Sandnes recalled. “We never kind of trusted government.”


Edward was a science teacher at York Catholic, so he incorporated his knowledge of reactors and cooling loops into the game. The family also created event cards based on news reports they had seen on TV.

Players roll two dice to make their way around the cooling loops, trying to avoid exposure to radiation as they travel. The game ends when the reactor reaches either cold shutdown or meltdown, and the player with the least accumulated radiation wins.


The Sandnes family called it REACT-OR and made about 300 games. After shopping it around to family and friends, they approached local stores about putting up small displays. Each brought in a few more sales.

They sold about 100. Today, unsold boxes sit in the Sandnes’ attic. You can find a few copies elsewhere in central Pennsylvania, such as one in Dickinson College’s Archives and Special Collections, but it’s hard to find because it never reached mass production.


Public perception influenced by pop culture
With the rise of the nuclear energy industry in the United States came books, films and television programs about the topic. The focus shifted from nuclear warfare to nuclear power plants just like the ones people saw going online in a few cities across the United States. Many of those fictional works portrayed disasters and cover-ups at nuclear plants.

Author Harold King published the novel Paradigm Red in 1975, in which an explosion occurs at a nuclear reactor plant and there is evidence of sabotage. CBS adapted the book into made-for-TV movie Red Alert. Then came The Chosen, about a nuclear power plant executive whose son happens to be the antichrist.

But the best-known film about nuclear power was released just 12 days before the incident at Three Mile Island.

The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, told the tale of a problem at a reactor in California, a cover-up, and a group of people determined to uncover the truth. Both the timing and its plot forever linked the film and Three Mile Island accident in many people’s minds.


After the accident, Dickinson College teacher Lonna Malmsheimer worked with a group of students and other instructors to interview central Pennsylvanians. They interviewed about 400 people over the course of six months.

One thing Malmsheimer noticed was how many people turned to fiction to make sense of the real-world events around them.


Two particular films kept being referenced in those interviews: War of the Worldsand The China Syndrome. Though the former wasn’t focused on nuclear power plants, people connected with the chaos and confusion they experienced immediately after the accident.

Sharon Kerstetter was a senior at Indiana University of Pennsylvania in 1979 when she and some friends saw The China Syndrome. They went to the theater on March 28, the same day as the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island.


Popular culture’s response to nuclear power
At the same time people were turning to pop culture to make sense of the accident, so too did artists and performers.

On April 7, 1979, Saturday Night Live included a sketch titled “The Pepsi Syndrome”– a skit with references to both the Hollywood film and the Three Mile Island partial meltdown, including a press conference and President Jimmy Carter’s visit. In the sketch, President Carter (portrayed by Dan Aykroyd) enters the reactor core and emerges as an irradiated giant.


The film industry also capitalized on growing concerns about the nuclear industry, with six movies released in the year after the accident at Three Mile Island. That catalog includes weird creature features like Island Claws to action flicks like Chain Reaction, in which an employee tries to warn the public about a leak at an Australian nuclear waste facility.

Musicians were also inspired by the accident, in some cases crossing platforms to spread their message.


Tom Quinn and Sean Kilcoyne were young boys living in central Pennsylvania in 1979. They didn’t understand what was happening at Three Mile Island, they just knew the adults around them were scared. But neither thought much about the accident afterward. That is, until five years ago.

The men have since catalogued hundreds of Three Mile Island-inspired tracks. You can listen to these “radioactive releases” on their blog.
“I’ve always collected music and classified it and made lists,” said Quinn, who runs a music blog called tapewrecks. “And, you know, so this was just a fascinating genre of music that I thought hadn’t been explored.”
The passion project started after a friend shared the 1979 song (Potter County Was Made By the Hand of God, But the Devil Made) Three Mile Island by Al Shade and Jean Romaine.

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