Three Mile Island

At 4:00 AM on March 28, 1979, a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power facility near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suddenly overheated, releasing radioactive gases.

Before the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania’s Three Mile Island, few had heard of the nuclear power plant on the Susquehanna River. But the crisis…quickly turned the plant and its giant cooling towers into icons in the long national argument over the safety of nuclear energy.

The initial information from the accident in the Unit 2 reactor was sketchy and contradictory. The utility company that ran the plant said the situation was manageable. But officials from mayor’s offices to the Oval Office worried about possible complications that would shower radioactivity on the small communities around Three Mile Island or perhaps even farther. Government engineers feared that the reactor’s nuclear fuel would melt out of its thick steel and cement encasement, or that a hydrogen gas bubble in the core would explode.

In Harrisburg, less than 10 miles away, the state’s new governor struggled with conflicting advice on whether to begin an evacuation that might affect more than 600,000 people. In Washington, 100 miles south, federal regulators anxiously sought reliable information to guide local authorities and the president, former nuclear engineer Jimmy Carter.

In the two decades since Three Mile Island, the plant has become a rallying symbol for the anti-nuclear movement. But the nuclear power industry, which has not built a single new plant in the United States since 1979, says the accident showed that its safety systems worked, even in the most extreme circumstances.

There is a great deal of information about Three Mile Island on the net. The Washington Post published an extensive review on the 20th anniversary of the incident in 1999, from which the above is excerpted. Frontline has the 1996 ruling dismissing legal claims for radiation health hazards in the community. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has a Fact Sheet on The Accident at Three Mile Island.