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The Three Mile Island Accident : America's Worse National Nuclear Crisis

Updated on January 16, 2017
Mark Caruthers profile image

Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Arkansas Fayetteville in Geography & History.

It was never supposed to happen.

In 1954, the United States Congress passed the Atomic Energy Act, a law that made the development of nuclear power possible by allowing for the first time the exchange of basic information about atomic energy for civilian applications. This Act would launch a new era in American history, as the Atomic Energy Commission authorized the building of over one hundred commercial nuclear power plants throughout the United States over the next two decades, with General Electric and Westinghouse competing over the lucrative contracts to build nuclear power plants . The Commission stressed that nuclear power was a safe and effective alternative to electric coal powered plants. All that would change in the early morning hours of March the 28th 1979 on the banks of the Susquehanna River. In March 1979 there were forty-seven nuclear power plants in the early stages of being built. They were all canceled after Three Mile Island, and not a single U.S. plant has been built over 37 years later. Less than three weeks after the Hollywood epic "The China Syndrome" was released, the worst accident in the history of commercial nuclear power in the United States occurred at the Three Mile Island (TMI) Nuclear Generating Station in Pennsylvania. The accident at Three Mile Island was like a scene out of the movie which involved the character Elliot Lowell, a physics professor who opposed nuclear power, he claimed that if the fuel rods in the core of a nuclear reactor overheated, they would melt through the floor of the plant in a matter of minutes and release enough radioactivity to "render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable. It was a strange coincidence that Lowell would use the state of Pennsylvania as a comparison. Three Mile Island would becom a major national crisis that resulted from mistakes, oversights, and misjudgments at ever level. Today, the image of the cooling towers at Three Mile Island have become a symbol for all the anti-nuclear lobbyist in the Unite States. The problem at Three Mile Island actually began at about 4 AM on March 28, 1979, when vital cooling water began to escape through an open valve in the newly built reactor at Unit 2, for the next two hours plant operators failed to read these symptoms correctly, failed to close the valve, and mistakenly shut off emergency cooling that would have operated automatically, consequently the reactor core over-heated and the worse nuclear disaster in American history was well on its way by sun-up.

For nearly a year the nuclear plant at Three Mile Island had been quietly generating electricity in the middle of the Susquehanna River. Located just ten miles from the state capital of Harrisburg, Three Mile Island was within 100 miles of Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, DC. By early morning Wednesday, March 28th, the exposed part of the core in Unit 2 at Three Mile Island was beginning to cook as temperatures in the reactor reached 4,300 degrees Fahrenheit. Word of the accident first reached the public in a radio report. Lieutenant Governor William Scranton assured everyone that the owner of the plant, Metropolitan Edison, had the situation under control, and no radiation had been released outside the plant. As Scranton left the podium, he would later learn radiation had been released and would no longer rely on Metropolitan Edison for information needed to make decisions.


Three Mile Island still in use today Unit 2 is on the right side unusable after the accident.

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The crisis would last for five days and leave the nation on a razor's edge.

What happened at Three Mile Island in the next five days would become history, as scientist scrambled to prevent the nightmare of a meltdown, as government officials rushed to calm the public's fears, and thousands of residents fled to emergency shelters. Perhaps, the worse moment of the crisis is when The Associated Press ran an urgent news bulletin stating that a hydrogen bubble inside the stricken reactor was about to explode. Americans that lived around the plant lived life on a razors edge as the crisis unfolded. The U.S. Department of Energy laid out the worst-case scenario for state officials explaining that if an explosion broke open the containment vessel lethal doses of radiation would escape. One state official, predicted the release of "extremely high" radiation dose rates in the thousands of rems per hour. For anyone living close to the plant it would have been lethal. Five hundred rems per hour of radiation is considered a lethal dose.

Aerial View of Three Mile Island Unit 2 is on the left hand side.

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President Carter Visits Three Mile Island.

President Carter visited Three Mile Island to help control the crisis, and calm the public's fears around the stricken plant the Sunday following the disaster. Carter, a former nuclear submarine officer, probably was more familiar with the workings of reactors than any president to occupy the office before or since. He displayed a great deal of courage as he walked around the plant inspecting the damage. At a news conference in Middletown after the tour, Carter urged the public to remain calm if the call came to evacuate. Carter's visit would mark the end to the crisis. That afternoon, scientist finally determined that the reactor core had stabilized. Residents slowly began returning to their homes. Although they were told that an insignificant amount of radiation had been released during the accident, they would be plagued with doubts for years afterward.

President Carter as he walks around the control room at Three Mile Island.

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Three Years after the Accident it was announced that the Reactor at Unit 2 did meltdown.

Three years after the accident, a robotic camera was lowered into Three Mile Island Unit 2's core, providing the first look at what really had happened that early morning back in 1979. Roger Mattson, a senior NRC engineer, described what was revealed : "We had a meltdown at Three Mile Island. Fifty percent of the core was destroyed or molten and something on the order of twenty tons of Uranium found its way to the bottom head of the pressure vessel. That's a core meltdown. No question about it." Large quantities of radioactivity leaked from the reactor, but most of it was contained. The cleanup would cost over a billion dollars and would last until 1993 when the last of the hazardous material was transported out of the plant.

Clean up at Three Mile Island

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The Clean-up and Cover-Up: What Really happened at Three Mile Island

The "Big Lie" was that the public was told that radiation releases at Three Mile Island were "insignificant." But the stack monitors at Three Mile Island which were needed to monitor the radiation were saturated and unusable, and the NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) later told Congress it didn't know and still does not know, how much radiation was released at Three Mile Island, or where it went. The public was told that there was no melting inside the reactor core at Unit 2. But robotic cameras later showed a very substantial portion of the fuel core did melt down, twenty tons of uranium to be exact.

The public was told there was no need to evacuate anyone from the area. But Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh ordered the evacuation of pregnant women and small children from the area around Three Mile Island. Unfortunately, many were sent to nearby Hershey, which was showered with fallout. In fact, the entire region should have been immediately evacuated. The public was assured the government would follow up with meticulous studies of health histories of the regions residents. In fact, the state of Pennsylvania hid the health impacts, but they could not hide an apparent tripling of the infant death rate in nearby Harrisburg and much more.

Using unsubstantiated estimates of how much radiation was released, the government issued average doses allegedly received by people in the region, which it assured the public were safe. But the estimates were utterly meaningless, among other things ignoring the likelihood that high doses of concentrated fallout could come down heavily on specific areas. Official estimates said a uniform dose to all persons in the region was equivalent to a single chest x-ray. But pregnant women are no longer x-rayed because it has long been known a single dose can do catastrophic damage to an embryo or fetus in utero.

The most reliable studies were conducted by local residents like Jane Lee and Mary Osborne, who went door-to-door in neighborhoods where the fallout was thought to be the worse. Their surveys point the other way showing very substantial plagues of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, respiratory problems, hair loss, rashes, lesions and much more.

Historical evidence among the local human population within 10 miles of Three Mile Island has been devastating. Large numbers of central Pennsylvanians suffered sunburns, skin sores and lesions that erupted while they were out of doors as the fallout rained down on them. Many residents quickly developed large, visible tumors, breathing problems, and a metallic taste in their mouths similar to some of the men who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and who were exposed to nuclear tests in the south Pacific and Nevada (the atomic soldiers).

Investigations by epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Wing of the University of North Carolina, and others significantly challenge the official government story on both radiation releases and health impacts. Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry official and a leading expert on nuclear engineering, says : "When I correctly interpreted the containment pressure spike and the doses measured in the environment after the Three Mile Island accident, I proved that Three Mile Island's releases were about one hundred times greater than the industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) claim, in part because the containment vessel leaked. In fact, all containment vessels are known to leak, because of all the pipes and electrical conduit that pass through the walls. The cost of sealing all those penetrations are considered too high, so the federal regulators allow a certain amount of leakage. Other experts estimate that the radiation releases at Three Mile Island could have been a thousand times greater than NRC estimates, what madness to allow an industry to build such a structure knowing the possibility that radiation could escape from the very structure designed to contain it.


Living with Nuclear Power

How much radiation was released at TMI

Do you agree with the NRC's story that little radiation was released into the atmosphere during the Three Mile Island Accident.

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Conclusion : Can we believe the Federal Government's findings at Three Mile Island

The nuclear crisis at Three Mile Island marked the high-water mark for nuclear power plant construction in the United States. No new permits to build nuclear power plants have been given after Three Mile Island. We can only hope we follow Germany's lead and began to shut down all of the nuclear power plants in the United States, and find an alternative means to create our electricity before something happens we can't clean up. Ironically, like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island Unit 2 was a state-of-the-art reactor. Its official opening came on December 28, 1978, and it melted down exactly three months later. Had it operated longer, the accumulated radiation spewing from its core almost certainly would have been far greater. The "Big Lie" remains officially in tact. That Three Mile Island was "success story " because " no one was killed." But in mere moments that brand new reactor morphed from a $900 million asset to a multi-billion dollar liability. Every reactor now operating in the U.S. is much older, it has been three decades since Unit 2 at Three Mile Island melted down, and their potential fallout could dwarf what came down in 1979.

To further underscore the horrors experienced by the people of central Pennsylvania during the crisis, the legendary then-CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite commented soon after the event at Three Mile Island, warning that "the world has never known a day quite like today. It faced the considerable uncertainties and dangers of the of the worst nuclear power plant accident of the atomic age. And the horror tonight is that it could get much worse."

If Three Mile Island happened today, we would have a data-center full of new capabilities to assess any damage or threat. The accident helped in the creation of a new group of experts within the Department of Energy, whose sole job is to model how dangerous fine particulates from a nuclear fallout or chemical explosion can be as they will drift across our landscape. The National Atmospheric Release Laboratory is housed at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, and is our defense against nuclear and chemical accidents or attacks. It was created in the aftermath of the Three Mile Island crisis. At the time of the crisis no one was able to determine exactly how much of the tasteless, odorless, invisible radiation was released and where it was drifting. The sensors designed to measure radioactive release were overwhelmed, the instrumentation that was installed at the plant was not designed to handle the scope and scale of the release at Three Mile Island. As intermittent emissions of radioactive gas tumbled into the sky, the outcome became clouded and on one will ever truly know what happened out on the Susquehanna River that early morning in March 1979.The Three Mile Island accident will never be fully understood forever lost in the realm of the unknown.


Sources

Gray, Mike. The Warning: Accident At Three Mile Island A Nuclear Omen for the Age of Terror. W.W. Norton & Company Ltd. New York. London, Castle. House, 75/76 Wells Street London WIT 3QT. 1982

Walker, Samuel J. Three Mile Island: A nuclear Crisis in Historical Perspective. University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles & London., 155 Grand Ave Ste 400, Oakland, CA 94612. 2004

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    • Mark Caruthers profile image
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      Mark Caruthers 2 years ago from Fayetteville Arkansas

      Thanks so much..

    • RonElFran profile image

      Ronald E. Franklin 2 years ago from Mechanicsburg, PA

      I moved to the Harrisburg area six years after the incident at TMI. This is the most I've learned about what actually happened. Nobody here seems to talk about TMI anymore, even though a 2013 federal govt report says the current 10-mile evacuation zone is probably not wide enough. This is a good reminder that we should not take the safety of TMI for granted.

    • Mark Caruthers profile image
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      Mark Caruthers 2 years ago from Fayetteville Arkansas

      I also remember the event, its too bad the government has covered up all the effects from the disaster. They could still do something, but they just leave the citizens who lived around Three Mile Island at the time of the event on their own, I'm shocked that the power company didn't set up some kind of fund for the victims. And like you said there hasn't been any real independent studies done on the region surrounding the Three Mile Island Accident, it's time they did, but I guess we will never know the true story. Thanks for taking the time to read my story.

    • lions44 profile image

      CJ Kelly 2 years ago from Auburn, WA

      As a kid during this event, I remember it being very scary as we lived a couple of hours away. But I never have seen any real independent studies done of the area and the effects of the fallout. It was almost our own Chernobyl.