LIMERICK, Pa. (CBS) — Former Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh knows somewhat how officials in Japan feel.

He was in the governor’s office in March 1979 when the coolant system at Three Mile Island Unit Two malfunctioned and the reactor core partially melted down. That’s exactly what’s now occurring at the stricken Fukushima Dai-ichi plant North of Tokyo.

The Three Mile Island accident triggered widespread panic across the state and led to drastic changes in nuclear safety in the United States.

“There’s an eerie similarity between the situation in Japan and what we had to face at Three Mile Island,” Gov. Thornburgh told Eyewitness News on Monday. “The mechanical challenges and the technical challenges are pretty much the same. Your goal is to bring the reactor to a cold shutdown and deal with the threat of a release of radiation into the environment.”

Thornburgh said his toughest task was sorting the facts from speculation.

“The central problem for those who have to manage this kind of incident is get reliable facts, and it’s a lot harder than you might think,” he said. “We initially relied on the utility that ran the reactor but found they were giving us incomplete or false information.”

For three decades, the Three Mile Island accident stopped the construction of new nuclear plants in the United States. Recently, that appears about to change, as the nation increasingly tries to become energy independent. A host of new plants are now planned, including one possibly at the Salem nuclear complex on the Delaware Bay in South Jersey. Nuclear power also has the backing of President Obama and some environmentalists because there are no greenhouse gas emissions.

“This development in Japan is not good news for the nuclear industry and those pushing aggressively for more facilities in the US and worldwide,” Gov. Thornburgh said.

Others agree this will alter the conversation.

“I want to know more about the specifics of what’s happening in Japan,” said Senator Pat Toomey. But he believes expanded nuclear power must be part of the nation’s energy future.

“I think it’s too soon to draw conclusions about what we’re seeing in Japan. Remember, they’ve been through some extraordinary circumstances,” he said. “Nuclear power plants are providing a great deal of electricity all around the world, and they have for decades. I do believe this can be done safely.”

Andrew Stein, however, is not so sure.

“There is absolutely no way to design for everything that could possibly happen, and we’re seeing what happens if there’s one bad day,” he said. “What we’re seeing here in Japan is the reason nuclear power is still a little bit scary.”

Stein works with an independent group to monitor radiation around Three Mile Island. He says nuclear plants are far too expensive – costing billions of dollars each – to be an efficient source of energy. Plus, the nation still has not figured out how to dispose of the plants’ highly radioactive, spent fuel.

“Nuclear power plants produce the most dangerous industrial waste we make on earth,” Stein said. “That industrial waste is fatal for 10,000 years.”

The Limerick nuclear power plant in Montgomery County will get a closer look from government regulators to see whether it’s at risk from seismic activity.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been looking at the seismic issue since the mid-2000’s, long before Friday’s earthquake and tsunami damaged a plant in Japan. NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci says Limerick is on a list of about a quarter of the 104 nuclear plants nationwide that will get a closer look, thanks to some new technology that was developed since the plants were built.

“It’s my understanding that the updated seismic information is the result of improvements made over the years.”

She says the assessment will determine whether they need to do anything further and whether any plant improvements to reduce seismic risk are warranted. She emphasized that these plants were built to withstand natural phenomenon, including earthquakes.

Reported by Brad Segall, KYW Newsradio; Ben Simmoneau, CBS 3

Top Content On CBSPhilly