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The End of Three Mile Island

This image depicts the Tree Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania, which was the site of a March 28, 1979 power plant accident. Image Courtesy of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

On September 20th of this year, the Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit One nuclear power plant in Central Pennsylvania powered down for the last time. The current owner of TMI, Exelon Generation, explained that its operational costs could no longer compete with the cheap natural gas flooding today’s energy market. The closure of TMI was met with little commentary or fanfare, making it easy to forget that forty years ago, the world watched as the island sustained the worst accident in the history of nuclear reactors in the United States. In the early morning hours of March 28, 1979, a valve was mistakenly left open, permitting large amounts of water—normally used to cool the plant’s core—to escape. Temperature and radiation levels in TMI Unit Two rose, causing a partial meltdown that disabled the unit, exposing unresolved questions about reactor safety, and galvanizing the international anti-nuclear movement. From the United States to Australia, from West Germany to the Philippines, the island’s ominous cooling towers became symbols of atomic danger as anti-reactor activists demanded “no more Harrisburgs.”

For the men, women, and children who lived in the shadow of the reactor, the TMI accident was more than symbolic; it placed them in the path of potential danger. They lived in the Susquehanna River Valley, a rural, pastoral region of Pennsylvania well-known as a Republican stronghold in the state. Most residents were white conservative Christians who had welcomed the reactor as a job creator and supplier of affordable, clean electricity. Literally overnight, their hometown was transformed into a scene out of a science fiction film. Civil defense coordinators handed out Geiger counters, the FDA placed hundreds of thermal luminescent thermometers within a twenty-mile radius of the plant, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission sent up helicopters to take aerial measurements of radiation. Everyone coming and going from the island wore respirators, residents received full-body scans to track radiological exposure, and the Food and Drug Administration ordered the mass shipment of potassium iodide, which can block the thyroid’s absorption of Iodine-131, a radioactive isotope. On the third day of the accident, Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh advised all pregnant women and children under the age of five living within a five-mile radius of the plant to leave the area. Americans tuning into the evening news saw frightening images of women, children, and babies fleeing schools and homes. For the first time in their lives, residents confronted something that the nuclear industry had assured them would never happen: their bodies and those of their loved ones had become possible repositories of radioactive contamination.

In an earlier era, community fears about the accident’s health effects might have quickly dissipated, especially since both state and federal studies came to the same reassuring conclusion: the radiation released from the plant, while psychologically frightening, never posed a danger to public health. The community, they maintained, had dodged a bullet. But in the years after Vietnam and Watergate, when public confidence in governing institutions was at an all-time low, many local residents rejected this official story. They were convinced not only that the state had underestimated radiation releases at the time of the accident, but also that the plant posed an ongoing public health threat during ostensibly normal operations. They feared that the radiation exposures from the plant led to higher rates of cancer, blood disorders, infant deaths, and fertility problems. The people of Three Mile Island portrayed themselves as radiation victims who had been betrayed by the state. They wrote letters to elected officials, provided testimony at public hearings, formed protest groups, filed class action lawsuits against the utility that owned the plant, and traveled to the nation’s capital to participate in antinuclear mobilizations. In short, over the course of the 1980s, many of these residents became activists. But they rejected labels like “radical” or “protestor.” These men and women distanced themselves from the left-leaning protest movements of the era, but they shared with them a growing distrust of government.

Today, the accident has been largely forgotten. Many of my college students are too young to remember the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, let alone a reactor accident that happened almost half a century ago. We tend to associate nuclear fears with a distant Cold War past that can feel almost quaint in an era of runaway climate change. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently warned that the window to prevent the worst consequences of the climate crisis is rapidly closing, and July 2019 was the hottest month on earth ever recorded. In this dystopian moment of ecological catastrophe, it is hard not to look back at Three Mile Island with a strange nostalgia, which is arguably why some environmentalists once opposed to nuclear power have now embraced it as a carbon-free technology that will need to be enlisted in the transition to a post-fossil fuel economy.

And yet atomic dangers still haunt our own time. This past summer, audiences in the United States and Britain escaped the heat by going indoors and watching the HBO mini-series Chernobyl, which recounts the horrific aftermath of the worst accident in reactor history. In August, a mysterious nuclear explosion off the coast of northern Russia killed at least seven people and tripped radiation meters in two nearby cities. The following month, a Japanese court acquitted three former executives of the Tokyo Electric Power Company who had been charged with criminal negligence for failing to heed warnings that a mega-tsunami could cripple the reactor at Fukushima-Daiichi, which is precisely what happened in March 2011. The breakneck, frenetic speed of today’s news cycle makes it easy to miss these stories. But there they are, reminding us that swirling around atomic history are a series of thorny, open questions about transparency, truth-telling, and accountability.

Because I published a book about Three Mile Island, I am often asked where I stand on the contemporary debate about nuclear power’s role as we transition away from oil. I certainly understand why turning to nuclear energy in the face of runaway climate change is so tempting. The notion that there is a carbon-free technological fix—ready and waiting—is deeply seductive, especially as the scale and severity of the climate crisis come into view. Yet treating nuclear energy as a panacea is misguided. For whether they are fossil fuels or nuclear power, the energy regimes we rely upon at one historical moment can set in motion processes that threaten both somatic and planetary health for generations. Nuclear accidents often make front-page news, but it is what comes afterward that should command our attention. In 2017, the Penn State Medical Center released a study that found a link between the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island and thyroid cancer, a reminder that many questions about what happened there remain unanswered to this day. Nor does the end of operations at Three Mile Island offer anything resembling closure. It is not simply a matter of powering down the reactor, turning off the lights, and closing the door on the way out. Exelon predicts that it could take as long as sixty years to decommission Unit One, a timeframe that exceeds the plant’s operational life by sixteen years. The final cleanup at the site may not be complete until 2079, right on time for the accident’s centennial. The ultimate fate of the nuclear waste generated on the island remains unclear. According to Exelon’s website, “contaminated components [will be] dismantled, securely packaged and transported to a licensed off-site facility.” Three Mile Island will shut down, but the contamination will live on at an undisclosed location. That is the thing about nuclear stories: they may be forgotten, but they never really end.

Natasha Zaretsky is a Professor of History at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and the author of Radiation Nation: Three Mile Island and the Political Transformation of the 1970s (Columbia University Press, 2018).