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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?

By Matthew L. Wald


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.)

A Real 'China Syndrome'?

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 title, 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 closed 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.

President Carter

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.

More than 100,000 people fled the region during the crisis. Later studies concluded that not enough radiation had been released to result in major health problems. But while some who lived close to the plant seemed to take the accident in stride, others feared for their lives.

"I've experienced two floods, a tornado, and two car accidents, but I can't come to terms with Three Mile Island," one woman told a federal commission investigating the accident a few months later.

The nuclear industry, which had attacked The China Syndrome as outlandish, found itself on the defensive. Critics of nuclear technology seized on the accident as a validation of their concerns—driven in some cases by the memory of the destruction wrought by the atom bombs. Orders for new reactors in the U.S. dried up.

"Three Mile Island stopped the nuclear industry in its tracks," Thornburgh said years later.

And that was before Chernobyl.

Chernobyl: 1,200 X-Rays

Seven years after Three Mile Island, in April 1986, the nuclear disaster that had been avoided in Pennsylvania happened at a nuclear plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine. Technicians were performing an experiment to see if they could continue generating electricity if the reactor began to shut itself down. But to conduct the test, they disabled some safety systems. And the reactor did not shut down—it wildly increased its power, leading to an explosion and fire.

At first, Soviet officials said nothing. But two days later, they confirmed the accident after workers at a Swedish nuclear plant 800 miles from Chernobyl detected very high levels of radiation. Countries throughout Western Europe began measuring the fallout, leading to a world outcry. Soviet officials later acknowledged that the average person within 20 miles of the plant had been exposed to radiation equivalent to 1,200 chest X-rays.

Twenty-eight people died immediately of radiation overdoses, but estimates of the total number of deaths from cancer and other radiation-related illnesses vary widely. Ten years after the accident, Ukrainian officials put the death toll at 4,300, while the environmental group Greenpeace has estimated that the radioactive fallout will eventually be responsible for nearly 100,000 cancer deaths in Europe.

Soviet authorities ordered everything within 30 kilometers—about 19 miles—of the plant abandoned as an "exclusion zone." Today the area is filled with ghost towns overgrown with vegetation.

Although nuclear proponents argued that the accidents at Chernobyl and Three Mile Island were anomalies, the industry has not recovered in the U.S. There are now 104 U.S. reactors (all begun before Three Mile Island) generating about 20 percent of the nation's power.

But nuclear power has been embraced by other nations. There are currently 337 working reactors in 30 countries outside the U.S., with France getting nearly 80 percent of its electricity from nuclear plants. And there may soon be many more: India and China plan to build dozens over the next decade, and Sweden, Italy, and other European countries have recently ended decades-long nuclear-energy moratoriums.

Before the current recession, it looked as though nuclear energy might be poised for an American comeback too: After a 31-year hiatus, 23 companies are now seeking federal permission to build 34 plants across the United States.

Global Warming

Some former opponents have softened their views. Nuclear power doesn't produce carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases implicated in global warming as coal burning plants do. And some public officials have advocated a new nuclear push to reduce America's dependence on fossil fuels.

Patrick Moore, a founder of Greenpeace and former nuclear-energy opponent, now supports its revival. "I think we made the mistake early on of lumping the peaceful use of nuclear in with the warlike use of nuclear,'' he says. "It doesn't make sense to ban the beneficial uses of a technology just because that technology can be used for evil.' '

Greenpeace itself remains opposed to nuclear energy, saying there's "no place for dangerous, expensive nuclear power in meeting future energy demand."

Other critics voice concerns that terrorists could target nuclear plants. And there's the issue of storage of nuclear waste: Every reactor creates 20 tons of radioactive waste per year, which must be isolated for thousands of years. The federal government has yet to find a permanent place to store it. In the meantime, it sits in temporary storage in 39 states.

In the late 1990s, Congress chose a spot northwest of Las Vegas called Yucca Mountain, but the Energy Department has faced fierce opposition in court from Nevada and groups that oppose nuclear power.

With demand for power across the globe surging, however, many people think new reactors are inevitable. James Rogers, the chief executive of North Carolina-based Duke Energy, which owns nuclear, coal, natural gas, and hydroelectric plants, says the nation can't meet its future energy needs without tapping a wide range of sources, including wind and solar. "We don't have the luxury of taking any of them out," he says.

In the 2008 campaign, Senator John McCain called for building dozens of new reactors. As a candidate, Barack Obama took a more cautious approach, but did not rule out an expansion of nuclear energy as one solution to America's energy needs.

"My attitude when it comes to energy is there's no silver bullet," he said. "We've got to look at every possible option."