Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1979 Three Mile Island: An Accident at a Pennsylvania Reactor Transfixed the Nation and Hobbled America's Nuclear Energy Industry. Is It Poised for a Comeback?

Magazine article New York Times Upfront

1979 Three Mile Island: An Accident at a Pennsylvania Reactor Transfixed the Nation and Hobbled America's Nuclear Energy Industry. Is It Poised for a Comeback?

Article excerpt

Sometimes, life really does imitate art. The China Syndrome, a Hollywood thriller about a fictional accident at a U.S. nuclear power plant, opened in theaters on March 16, 1979. Two weeks later, it got a big boost in ticket sales when Americans awakened to the ominous news that something had gone wrong at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant, near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The failure of a cooling system had damaged one of the plant's reactors and forced operators to vent radioactive steam into the air. If the accident wasn't contained quickly, officials said, there was a growing risk of a "meltdown" of atomic fuel or an explosion of radioactive gas, which could be catastrophic in such a densely populated area. Americans were glued to their TV sets as Pennsylvania's Governor closed nearby schools and advised some residents in the area to flee.

In the end, the mishap at Three Mile Island did not end in a catastrophe or any serious injury, but a nation already wary of nuclear power turned against it with a vengeance. And a deadly explosion less than a decade later at the Chernobyl nuclear plant in what was then the Soviet Union convinced many nuclear-energy opponents that their fears were warranted. It's only now, 30 years after Three Mile Island, amid concerns about global warming and America's dependence on fossil fuels, that nuclear energy could be getting a second look.

Nuclear power plants, like the atomic bombs the U.S. dropped on Japan in 1945, harness the enormous amounts of energy released when atoms are hit by sub-atomic particles and break apart in nuclear chain reactions. In a nuclear reactor, that energy is used to heat water, which produces steam to drive a turbine generator, creating electricity. (Most conventional power plants work in a similar way but use coal, oil, or natural gas to make the steam.)


The accident at Three Mile Island began on March 28, 1979, at the plant's second reactor, which was three months old at the time and the youngest of 68 nuclear reactors then operating in the U.S. and providing 13 percent of the nation's electrical power.

At first, plant officials described the problem with the reactor's cooling system as minor, even though plant operators had released small amounts of radioactive steam into the air in an attempt to cool down the reactor core. But after three days, with engineers unable to stop the core from heating up as high as 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission (N.R.C.) warned of a possible meltdown. (It was the fear of a meltdown that had given The China Syndrome its tide, from the hypothetical idea of a radioactive reactor core melting down through the reactor's steel-reinforced containment floor and penetrating the Earth's crust, all the way to the other side of the planet.)

Even more ominous, a hydrogen gas bubble that had formed inside the reactor posed the risk of an explosion that could release large amounts of radioactive gas into the atmosphere.

Pennsylvania's Governor, Richard Thornburgh, ordered 23 nearby schools dosed and urged tens of thousands of people in Central Pennsylvania to stay indoors. He later advised pregnant women and small children to leave the area.


On the fifth day, with technicians still working to cool the reactor and the American public growing more concerned, President Jimmy Carter arrived to assess the situation--and to try to show the public that radiation levels were not dangerous. He toured Three Mile Island with his wife, Rosalynn, and viewed the damaged reactor from inside a yellow school bus. Carter, who was trained as a nuclear engineer in the Navy, urged calm and said residents would be protected.

In the next few days, engineers succeeded in cooling the reactor and eliminating the hydrogen bubble. On April 9, the N.R.C. announced that the crisis had ended, without the catastrophe that many had feared. …

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