The Three Mile Island disaster was the first major nuclear disaster in the United States.   The accident at TMI served as a wake-up call to both the public and nuclear regulatory agencies, who struggled to properly communicate throughout the incident.  After the investigation, the full scope of the damage was revealed; Unit 2 partially melted down, and a small amount of radiation was released into the atmosphere.  The surrounding region can count itself lucky that more radiation didn’t escape, as the levels measured inside the reactor vessel could kill a human in minutes.

Nuclear accident movie The China Syndrome, released just days before the TMI accident.  Source

Shortly after the accident, the public responded with protests.  A wave of anti-nuclear sentiment circulated throughout popular culture and the media, which was enhanced by the film The China Syndrome which was released just days prior to the TMI accident. Worse yet, the plot of The China Syndrome mirrored events at Three Mile Island with disturbing congruence.

Anti-nuclear protest in September of 1979. Source

Fortunately, a mixture of public outcry and regulatory necessity caused changes to be made.  Communications systems between engineers, regulators and reactor operators were updated.  Eventually, a line was established connecting the control rooms of every nuclear power plant in the nation, allowing engineers to communicate with each other if problems occurred.  Another issue that was ironed out after the incident was the Abbot and Costello-like ‘who’s in charge’ debacle.  In short, dozens of different individuals and agencies couldn’t really figure out who was supposed to be doing what during the incident.  To rectify this, special entities were assigned to manage nuclear accidents if and when they occur, and a clear chain-of-command was established to avoid confusion. Guidelines were also put in place for dealing with reporters and local public officials.



Plaque dedicated to the TMI nuclear accident; cooling towers for the plant’s only operating reactor (Unit 1) visible in the background.  Source

In 2009, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) approved the plant’s request for license renewal, extending it 20 years.  Currently, only Unit 1 remains active, as Unit 2 sits inoperable just as it did in 1979.  To date, the clean-up of Unit 2 had already started, and according to Wikipedia:

“The TMI-2 reactor has been permanently shut down with the reactor coolant system drained, the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated, radioactive waste shipped off-site, reactor fuel and core debris shipped off-site to a Department of Energy facility, and the remainder of the site being monitored.”

This was very good news for the surrounding area, and for the reputation of the Nuclear Power industry.  What will eventually be done with all nuclear waste is a different discussion entirely, but for now, the people responsible for cleaning up mankind’s mechanical mistakes made the right choice by decontamination the reactor.

Empty playground in sight of the power station.  Source


Though the plant is technically allowed to operate until 2029, doubts have been cast by lawmakers and Pennsylvania residents for years.  Many wish to see the plant continue operating, even past the scheduled 2029 license expiration; a sentiment mirrored by supporters of the nation’s many other ageing ‘nuke’ plants.  Generally, supporters of the plant believe climate change is a more pressing issue than the threat of nuclear disaster, and lobbyists are pushing the issue on either side.

According to Excelon, the company responsible for Three Mile Island and its operation, decommissioning of the plant could take up to sixty years.  Some speculate that the company wants to intentionally draw out the process for as long as possible; but for opponents of nuclear power, the prospect the plant standing for nearly a century after the accident seems grim.

TMI in 1979.  Source

The future of nuclear power is uncertain.  A valuable lesson can be learned from the Three Mile Island disaster; man participates in a delicate dance with machine, and walks a fine line between magnificent power and unimaginable destruction.


Click Here to read Part 1 of this article.

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