By Ken Rice

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) – Thursday, March 28th marks 40 years since the accident at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg. The partial meltdown ended up releasing a small amount of radiation that affected areas nearby. But for seven long days, fear spread much farther.

“The primary and overriding concern for all of us is the health and the safety of the people of this entire area, ” President Jimmy Carter announced when he arrived at the stricken plant. Scenarios being described were so serious — so scary — that the president and first lady came to try to calm things down.

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A movie that happened to be in theaters at the time was part of the problem: The China Syndrome, a fictional story of a power plant accident that threatens a nuclear holocaust.

“The plot almost reads along the same lines as the updates we’ve been getting from Harrisburg all day and into the night,” reported KDKA’s Pat Crosby.

At Three Mile Island, a cooling problem led to real concerns of a core meltdown. Governor DickThornburgh issued an advisory for pregnant women and little kids “to leave the area within a 5-mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility until further notice.”

WEB EXTRA VIDEO: A LOOK BACK AT WHAT RESIDENTS WENT THROUGH DURING THE THREE MILE ISLAND ACCIDENT:

Evacuees gathered at an arena in Hershey.

“I’d sooner be here than down there getting sick in a couple of years from now maybe, a young mother told KDKA’s Bill Proctor.

At the same time, as a precaution, the chocolate company temporarily stopped using milk from local cows in Hershey bars.

As a massive corps of reporters arrived to cover the story, it often seemed there were no good answers. John Herbein, an official with then Three Mile Island owner Metropolitan Edison, was asked if there was a great deal of radiation coming out of the damaged reactor. Replied Herbein, “Well, I wouldn’t say there’s a great deal.”

We felt the fear in Pittsburgh. Anti-nuclear demonstrators marched Downtown and filled Market Square.

“Let us try to find the strength to understand what it being told to us today. That death is as close as our nearest nuclear reactor,” physicist and nuclear energy opponent Ernest Sternglass told a crowd.

WEB EXTRA VIDEO: A WEEK GOES BY DURING THE THREE MILE ISLAND ACCIDENT, WHAT HAPPENED DURING THAT WEEK.

After a tense week, plant operators finally announced they had things under control.

In Middletown, PA, just a few miles from the plant, evacuees began returning, tentatively. Asked if they were apprehensive about coming home, a couple told KDKA they were keeping their bags packed.

Reported KDKA’s Bob Sprague: “It will take years before doctors and public health officials amass enough data to determine what the physical and emotional effects have been.”

KDKA’s Bill Burns reported that more than half the people surveyed since the accident had changed their opinion about whether more nuclear power plants should be constructed.

“We feel it’s safe, we feel it’s clean,” Duquesne Light’s Roger Martin told KDKA’s Ray Tannehill. “And we hope that in time we can answer the questions, the valid questions that are being asked by the public.

Concluded Tannehill: “Until a lot of questions are answered, the future of nuclear power is clouded by uncertainty. But as the price of oil keeps soaring and future shortages loom, it’s clear that the questions about nuclear energy need to be answered soon, so we the public can decide whether we can afford to live with, or without it.”