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Editorial: Three Mile Island

Nuclear challenges

A cooling tower of Three Mile Island's Unit 1 Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Middletown, Pa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)
A cooling tower of Three Mile Island's Unit 1 Nuclear Power Plant is seen in Middletown, Pa. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)Read more

Three Mile Island. The China Syndrome. Thirty years later, it's still hard for some people to separate the reality of the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history from a fictional depiction of an eerily similar event in a popular movie.

In a way, the movie made the aftereffects of Three Mile Island worse.

The China Syndrome, starring Jane Fonda, Michael Douglas, and Jack Lemmon, warned what could happen if the core of a power-plant nuclear reactor overheated and melted clear through the earth to Asia. Twelve days after its release, the film almost proved prescient.

On March 28, 1979, Unit 2 at the Three Mile Island plant near Middletown, Pa., overheated. The core began to melt. Toxic gases escaped into the air before the situation was controlled. More than 200,000 nearby residents were evacuated. There were no injuries. No loss of life.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said two million people were likely exposed to low levels of radiation, but that the effects on them and the environment were negligible.

The same could not be said for the nuclear power industry in America. It was crippled by Three Mile Island, which became the rallying cry for activists who had long pointed out the danger in using radioactive material to generate electricity.

But the industry didn't die. In fact, although Unit 2 has remained out of service, Unit 1 at Three Mile Island provides power to Pennsylvania homes and businesses to this day.

The expansion of nuclear power, however, has been stalled nationally, largely on the basis of the justified fear spawned by Three Mile Island and linking it to the possibility of a real "China Syndrome" occurring. Subsequent lesser incidents at other plants have perpetuated that fear.

The utilities that operate nuclear power plants have greatly improved safety procedures since Three Mile Island. Nine months after that event, they banded together to form the Institute of Nuclear Power Operations to share best practices.

But troubling incidents continue to occur; like the security guards caught sleeping at Peach Bottom, or the sabotage discovered at Turkey Point in Florida. These events don't exactly boost confidence in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the industry's watchdog.

Then there's the overarching concern of the public, that in the 30 years since Three Mile Island, this nation has yet to develop a viable alternative to storing nuclear waste on-site at the power plants.

The Obama administration has indicated that it doesn't support locating a national repository at Yucca Flats, Nevada. But with nuclear energy being touted as a better option to our expensive foreign-oil habit, the waste question must be answered.

Utilities have submitted applications to the NRC to build up to 26 new nuclear reactors, including one at the Bell Bend plant in Luzerne County.

Worldwide, more than 400 reactors are being planned, as other nations also attempt to become less oil-dependent. Even Sweden, which banned any new nuclear power plants after Three Mile Island, has new plants on the drawing board.

Thirty years ago, the rest of the world might have looked to this country at this point. General Electric, Westinghouse, and Babcock & Wilcox were the leaders in building nuclear reactors. But today, it's Electricite de France. Indeed, 75 percent of France's electricity is derived from nuclear power compared with 20 percent in the United States.

France handles its nuclear waste by reprocessing most of it to be used again. That has been resisted here, because it requires separating uranium from plutonium, which could be used to make nuclear weapons.

But if reprocessing isn't the answer, and Yucca Flats is out of the question, so should be new nuclear plants - until someone has a brighter idea.