The track record of both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl is that the official announcements will always paint a rosy scenario. They will always say that things aren't as bad as they appear. And, governing officials will always be reluctant to order an official evacuation. If nothing else, they will always be reluctant to 'create panic.'
To me, this means that the one thing you do not do is to sit calmly at home waiting for the tv or the radio to officially announce that the accident is bad and that you should be evacuating from your current position. My advice to family and friends has always been that if you hear anything at all about a nuclear accident upwind of where you are, immediately leave and run like hell to someplace that is not downwind of whereever it is you are being reassured that everything is under control and that there is no need for panic.
Nothing I've seen or heard about Fukushima has changed that opinion.
I've been reminded lately of how much information is sometimes withheld from us. Back in the early 80's, immediately after Three Mile Island on March 28, 1978, I was studying undergraduate nuclear engineering at Georgia Tech. The school had a weekly seminar that was a mandatory attendance for students, where speakers talked about nuclear issues. One day, and it must have been before 1983 when I dropped out of school, I remember speakers from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission coming to talk about Three Mile Island. My memories are more than thirty years old, but I believe they probably ran through the timeline of events of what had happened. This was also when they were starting to get back into the reactor site and seeing what they could find.
The one thing that sticks strongly in my memory was that they had started to stick cameras into the radioactive reactor vessel to see what it looked like after the accident. Now, at the time, TMI was being presented as a relatively minor event where everything stayed pretty much under control and there was no real danger but some small amounts of radioactive gasses were vented to the atmosphere. Which is still pretty much the official story today.
The pictures I remember seeing in this nuclear engineering seminar talk showed something very different. Because, when they stuck a camera in to look at the core of TMI after the accident, they found an strikingly empty reactor vessel. My memories are thirty years old, but I remember an empty vessel with just some struts and attachments still stuck to the sides. But, everything else was gone ... melted away. Until that picture came up on the screen, I had no idea that they had pretty much fully melted the core at TMI.
Spending much of my time inside a school of nuclear engineering at the time, I didn't really realize that this wasn't public knowledge until several years later when I saw the national network news breaking the story that pictures had been found that the core at TMI had suffered a meltdown. That was one of my first concrete lessons in that the public is not told everything, or even what they need to know, about nuclear power.
Today, March 29, 2011, I went looking for those same pictures. I went to google, and started searching both their web page searches and their image searches, and I haven't found those images yet. I'd have it attached to this post if I had found it. I did find a summary of a news article discussing the release of similar pictures in 1985.
Article: TV images suggest a TMI core melt. (Three Mile Island reactor)
But, a search for images doesn't turn up anything. Type "three mile island core meltdown" into Google's image search tool, and those dramatic images of a melted core that I saw in the early 80's don't appear. At least not on the hundred or so results on the first page returned. Lots of aerial photos of TMI that look like nuclear industry promotional pictures. But, nowhere do you see the dramatic pictures of the empty reactor vessel where the core had been melted away. Nor, do I find anything that looks like the images described in the article summary above. I've looked through two pages of Google image results, and not a sign of anything like this online. If anyone knows of where to find these post-accident images of the damage to the reactor core, I'd like to know about it.
Yesterday, I heard a nuclear activist say that most everything people have probably heard about Three Mile Island was a lie. This is just one small bit of confirmation of that. Even today, some 30 plus years later, there is still a reluctance to admit just how badly they melted down that reactor core at TMI.
Which brings me back to my first point. When it really counts, don't rely on the nuclear industry telling you the truth. If you hear even a rumor of a hint of a nuclear accident upwind of you, then run like freakin hell. The early announcements will always be overly optimistic if not outright lies. And its much better to be finding out about this from a hotel room somewhere outside of the radiation plume.
It also means, if you hear of any plans to BUILD a nuclear facility upwind of you, then get involved in fighting to stop it. That way, the day when you have to run like hell fleeing a nuclear accident never occurs.