THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: MARCH 28, 1979

Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident Occurs

three-mile-island-nuclear-accidentThree Mile Island, the site of the worst civilian nuclear power program accident in the United States, is located in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. In the early 1970s, Metropolitan Edison built two reactors on Three Mile Island for commercial energy production. On March 28, 1979, a faulty valve allowed water coolant to escape from Metropolitan Edison’s second reactor, Unit 2, during an unplanned shutdown. A cascade of human errors and technological mishaps resulted in an overheated reactor core with temperatures as high as 4,300 degrees and the accidental release of radiation into the atmosphere. Plant operators struggled to resolve the situation. Press reporters highlighted the confusion surrounding the accident, while Governor Richard L. Thornburgh of Pennsylvania and President Jimmy Carter visited the stricken plant, urging the nation to remain calm. On March 30, state officials evacuated pregnant women and preschool children from the immediate area as a safety measure. On April 2, temperatures decreased inside the Unit 2 reactor, and government officials declared the crisis over on April 9.

A commission authorized by President Carter investigated the calamity. Government analysts calculated that, at the height of the crisis, Unit 2 was within approximately one hour of a meltdown and a significant breach of containment. The lessons learned at Three Mile Island led to improved safety protocols and equipment overhauls at commercial reactors across the country. Three Mile Island also contributed to rising public anxiety over the safety of nuclear energy, anxieties fueled by the coincidental release of The China Syndrome, a fictional movie about the cover-up of a nuclear plant accident, just twelve days before the disaster at Three Mile Island. The Three Mile Island accident became a rallying cry for grassroots antinuclear activists. Wary of sizable cost overruns and public resistance, electrical utilities shied from constructing new nuclear plants in the years that followed. Over an eleven-year period, the cleanup of Three Mile Island’s severely damaged reactor cost in excess of $1 billion.

Guth, Robert M., and John Wills. “Three Mile Island.” Dictionary of American History. Ed. Stanley I. Kutler. 3rd ed. Vol. 8. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 2003. 122. U.S. History in Context. Web.

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