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Key Figure in Three Mile Island Crisis, Joseph Hendrie, Passes Away at 98

EnvironmentKey Figure in Three Mile Island Crisis, Joseph Hendrie, Passes Away at 98

**Remembering Joseph M. Hendrie: A Legacy in Nuclear Energy**

Joseph M. Hendrie, a prominent physicist who played a pivotal role during the Three Mile Island crisis, passed away at the age of 98 at his residence in Bellport, N.Y. His leadership at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission during the catastrophic event marked a significant moment in the history of nuclear power in the United States.

**The Three Mile Island Crisis**

On March 28, 1979, a significant nuclear power accident transpired at the Three Mile Island, situated on an island in the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. This incident, characterized by a sudden loss of cooling water and a partial meltdown of its radioactive fuel, had far-reaching consequences. While minimal radioactivity was released and no immediate deaths occurred, the miscommunication and lingering confusion over the severity of the threat fueled a protracted national debate about nuclear safety. The aftermath of the crisis was exemplified by an antinuclear rally in New York City and the release of a hit thriller film, “The China Syndrome,” which centered around a nuclear plant disaster.

**The Role of Joseph M. Hendrie**

Dr. Hendrie, appointed by President Jimmy Carter in 1977 to lead the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was dedicated to maintaining nuclear power as a viable energy option, despite being criticized by environmentalists for his industry support. However, the events following the Three Mile Island crisis, including a presidential commission’s scathing report and subsequent mandatory changes in how nuclear plants were constructed and regulated, led to Dr. Hendrie’s dismissal by President Carter.

**Legacy and Contributions**

Despite the challenges he faced, Dr. Hendrie remained an influential member of the regulatory commission until the end of his term in 1981. He was known for his deep technical understanding of nuclear science and engineering, and his ability to effectively manage a diverse workforce involved in various nuclear-related activities. His work at the Brookhaven National Laboratory and subsequent role as president of the American Nuclear Society underscored his extensive contributions to the field.

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**Life Beyond the Crisis**

Reflecting on his tenure, Dr. Hendrie expressed that leaving high-profile government work for a quieter life of research was a decision he had no regrets about. His diverse contributions, both in the public sector and research, highlighted his significant impact and legacy in the nuclear energy landscape.

**Personal Life and Legacy**

Dr. Hendrie’s life was not only marked by his substantial professional contributions. He was born in 1925 and served in the Army Corps of Engineers during World War II. His academic accomplishments included a degree in physics from Case Institute of Technology and a Ph.D. from Columbia University. His personal life was touched by a profound love story with his late wife, Elaine Kostel, and he is survived by his daughters and other family members.

**The Impact of Three Mile Island**

The Three Mile Island accident had a profound and lasting impact on the development of nuclear power in the U.S. For over three decades, no new permits for reactors were issued by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. It wasn’t until more recent times, with increased awareness of the climate crisis, that new interest in nuclear power has emerged. The Biden administration’s allocation of significant funding toward economically challenged reactors underscores the renewed importance of nuclear energy in the current energy landscape.


Joseph M. Hendrie’s legacy remains deeply intertwined with the historical and ongoing evolution of nuclear energy. His pivotal role during the Three Mile Island crisis, coupled with his subsequent contributions to research and professional organizations, solidified his impact and significance in the realm of nuclear science and engineering. The lessons learned and changes implemented following the Three Mile Island crisis continue to shape the trajectory and future of nuclear power in the United States.

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