Forty years ago today, the “incident” at Three Mile Island Generating Station in eastern Pennsylvania occurred. Due to a series of small-scale mishaps with cooling systems, the radioactive core of a nuclear reactor heated up to alarming temperatures and suffered a partial core meltdown. Fortunately, the overheated radioactive material itself was contained in the core and did not escape to the environment.
The concern then turned to what to do radioactive gases that had been generated. For days, “Three Mile Island’ dominated the news, with news reports always featuring the forbidding cooling towers venting steam in the background. Ultimately, some of the gases were trapped in tanks, but other gases were vented to the atmosphere after migrating through a series of filters that were supposed to trap the most dangerous radioactive elements. Residents were instructed to stay indoors, with the windows in their homes closed, but there was great concern that exposure to the gases could cause all kind of health issues. People panicked, and thousands of frightened people fled the area. It was one of the first instances of major federal government communications failure in the modern era. Eventually, President Carter visited the site to let the general public know that the situation was under control — but by then the perceptual damage had been done.
It took about a month until the engineers at the site had the coolant systems under control, but the aftermath of TMI lasted for years. There was significant litigation about the possible health effects of the incident, although authorities eventually concluded that the only significant exposure was experienced by four employees at the TMI plant. Concerns about widespread birth defects and the development of radiation-related illnesses turned out to be unfounded. In the meantime, clean-up operations lasted for almost 15 years and cost nearly a billion dollars.
TMI was the worst nuclear incident on U.S. soil. In terms of its health effects, it doesn’t hold a candle to the Chernobyl incident, and many people now living in America either weren’t around when it happened or have forgotten about it. But TMI has had one lasting impact that is undeniable — since it occurred, no new nuclear power plants have been built in the United States, and every time one is considered, the grainy black and white photos of the TMI cooling towers with steam rising from them get displayed.
But as America increasingly focuses on lessening its carbon footprint and relying on renewable energy sources, nuclear power is cited more and more frequently as something that has to be considered as part of the solution. Technology has changed a lot, and for the better, since 1979, and people also have come to realize that nuclear power offers some significant environmental advantages over other forms of power generation that are dependent upon fossil fuels.
Maybe now it is time to let TMI and those scary photos of cooling towers fade into the past, and take a fresh look at nuclear power without being hamstrung by 40-year-old fears.