Tonight President Obama gives a prime-time address to the nation in which he'll try to ease public concern over the oil unrelentingly spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, now reaching our shores, as well as share what his administration intends to do about it.

Tonight President Obama gives a prime-time address to the nation in which he'll try to ease public concern over the oil unrelentingly spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, now reaching our shores, as well as share what his administration intends to do about it.


It has harkened some back to another disaster of 31 years ago, when the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa., suffered a partial meltdown and began to leak radioactive gas into the atmosphere surrounding the plant. On April 3, 1979, Journal Star Editorial Page Editor C.L. Dancey weighed in with this view under the headline, "Suspense - And a billion bucks":


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"Strange are the ways of men.


Some 400,000 people have been killed as a result of industrial accidents in the United States in the 25 years since we have been generating electricity by nuclear power - none of them 'nuclear.'


We shrug.


More than a million Americans have died in highway accidents during that same period. We not only shrug, we demand that the speed limit be raised! ...


We know we will kill 40,000 to 50,000 people this year with our automobiles but we only go out of our skulls over an industrial nuclear accident - which hasn't killed anybody - because the government talked about a possible temporary evacuation of that many people based on their (proper) unwillingness to take even a 1 percent risk of any of them being injured.


What really gets us is not the actual record or actual injury involved in any of these things. What really gets us is the Alfred Hitchcock Syndrome. Suspense!


Suspense is what really works on our emotions and our fears. Suspense is what makes the greatest news stories of all ...


That element has dominated the Three Mile Island story from the start. And reporters making the most of it, knowing the appeal.


When it is over, hopefully, we can settle down and make sense out of it - on the facts without all that imagination.


We may find either it is a sober warning of what might really happen and an idea of the realistic scope of such possibility (vis a vis wiping out "a whole state," etc.) - or it may turn out to be evidence that the worst that can happen, virtually, has happened and our earliest, most rudimentary controls systems have proven able to cope with it, without even a fatality.


I don't know which, but I do know that we have had more men killed at Commonwealth Edison's old coal-fired generating plant in Pekin than in all the nuclear plants put together, in cold fact - two of them last year in the ashes collected by the anti-pollution devices.


And figuring the right answer should not matter in the real world because it may change something else that's basic.


It may well be that the real threat to the development of nuclear power, after Three Mile, is not the danger nor the demonstrators nor the sentiment. This involves an actual result, not the possibilities imagined in the mind's eye, and that may cool down nuclear investors faster than they are cooling down the reactor. If the core is really damaged, as it now appears, replacing it would likely be a billion dollar proposition.


Investors in (the) future may be reluctant to put money into something which can lose a billion bucks overnight.


If that happens, the political posturing we will be watching in Congress will be meaningless - except as the usual political eagerness to exploit human emotions for personal gain."


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After TMI, of course, a scared nation soured on nuclear energy, canceling dozens of scheduled projects. Over the next 20 years, far fewer nuclear power plants would be constructed in America due to the added costs associated with tightened government regulation of the industry, local opposition and oil overcapacity.


In retrospect, everyone may have overreacted, leading to a disproportionate reliance on foreign oil and arguably planting the seeds of this latest disaster as an America addicted to fossil fuels sought deeper and riskier sources of crude.


The reality is that the nation needs energy and that its continued dependence on oil is proving to be counterproductive in more ways than one. Yet despite that, Washington has yet to come up with a comprehensive energy policy that provides some degree of balance between the changes the U.S. must make in consumption and in the sources from which it derives energy.


That's what we're looking for from Obama tonight, an assurance that he has some sense of where that balance is, and that he will not overreact the way we did in 1979.


Peoria, Ill., Journal Star