Was Three Mile Island an Accident Waiting to Happen?

When the Chernobyl disaster happened in 1986, it forever took all the attention for any kind of nuclear accident. But before Chernobyl, there was Three Mile Island. This is an accident that you may not know was much more serious than it seemed.

Even though it happened in 1979, the Three Mile Island incident carried on well into the 1980s and had ramifications and implications felt for years. 

This will be a brief overview of a topic that was a lot more complicated than I realized. The truth is, the Three Mile Island accident could have been a lot worse. And, not surprisingly, there appears to be a lot of coverups and deceit. For a much more in-depth look at all this, you definitely need to check out the brilliant Netflix documentary: Meltdown: Three Mile Island.

But here’s a quick look at what happened as we were going into the 1980s.  

The State of Energy in the 1970s

The 1970s were not exactly the greatest decade. Besides the horrible bell bottoms and earth-tone colors, energy was a real sticking point. Oil embargos overseas led to skyrocketing gas prices and shortages. 

Fun fact: the oil shortage is one of the main reasons we got our familiar, but smaller size action figures. Up to the 1970s, action figures were rather large, but the oil shortage which was needed in their production was either too scarce or driving up costs. To work around this issue, they shrank action figures down to three and three-quarter inches. You saw this prominently with the star wars line by Kenner, then into the GI Joe figures we knew and loved.

So There’s always been the issue of our dependence on foreign oil, but what about alternative energy sources? One option that had been around for quite a while was nuclear energy. It could be efficient, but the very concept of nuclear power terrified people.

The United States had been researching a peaceful use for atomic energy and formed the Atomic Energy Commission in 1946. The Argonne National Laboratory was behind the development of commercial nuclear energy and this again goes back to the 1940s.

In 1951, Argonne employees watched as four light bulbs lit up because of energy from a generator connected to a nuclear reactor. This was the very first time that a usable amount of electrical power had been generated by nuclear fission.

The US Navy was the first to jump on this, as nuclear power could allow ships to run longer without being refueled. In 1957, the first nuclear reactor went online to produce energy for the US power grid. Nuclear power continued to grow through the 1960s with the goal of having 1000 nuclear reactors by the year 2000.

In the 1960s, they split The Atomic Energy Commission into the department of energy and an independent commission called the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or NRC–keep that name in mind for later. 

 Nuclear power would be cleaner, cheaper, and wouldn’t pollute the environment the way coal and fossil fuels did. But people were understandably wary of having a nuclear reactor in their hometown. Was this safe? Did we move too quickly and not consider all the other options? What if there was an accident?

By the 1970s, nuclear energy had not grown as quickly as expected. And it cost a lot more than expected. Between 1966 and 1977, they built only 75 nuclear power reactors. One of those reactors was built on a three-mile stretch of land in the water near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. 

The China Syndrome

Depending on how old you are, you may have never heard of the movie: The China Syndrome. It came out on March 16th, 1979, and starred Jane Fonda. This movie was a “what if” of the dangers of nuclear energy.

People were already concerned, and then a movie like this comes along that plays into everyone’s fears. The premise of the movie is about a reporter investigating a story about nuclear power. While following the story, they capture a nuclear accident. The accident involved a high-pressure measurement on a gauge, and when the crew sees it, they restrict the coolant flow, which is needed to lower that pressure.

Reducing the coolant flow doesn’t work. They keep reducing it until a major alarm goes off indicating the pressure is too low. In the movie, the crew has to perform an emergency shutdown of the reactor so it doesn’t melt down. The concept of “China Syndrome” is that the meltdown could essentially be hot enough to melt through the earth all the way to the other side to China.

In the film, they find out about potentially disastrous safety violations in the plant. Jane Fonda’s character makes it her quest to inform the public about these violations. In real life, Fonda was also campaigning against nuclear energy. 

The nuclear power industry obviously hated this film and thought it played into public fear. They saw it as nothing more than fiction and an attack on the entire industry.

But there were a few more interesting things about this movie. One scene involved an official saying that an explosion at the fictional plant could “render an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania permanently inhabitable.”

And remember; this movie came out on March 16th, 1979.

March 28, 1979

Just twelve days after this movie was released, a problem occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear facility in Pennsylvania. On the morning of March 28, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission received some alarming news.

Mysteriously high radiation and pressure readings were coming from one of their newer nuclear reactors in Pennsylvania. How new? Three Mile Island was only around 90 days old. 

Was this an actual issue, or was it an instrumentation issue? Was it just that the meters were off and things weren’t that bad? It turns out the meters were right. Something was going terribly wrong.

Here’s a quick nuclear reaction lesson that I needed to be explained to me like I’m 5. A nuclear reaction takes place and the heat creates steam that causes a turbine to spin, and the turbine creates the electricity. This obviously creates a ton of heat and a cooling system is needed to maintain temperature.

Somehow, the cooling system had broken down. And a whole mess of other issues seemed to all be happening at once. The engineers and people on duty were completely caught off guard and scrambling to make sense of the emergency. 

Basically, a hydrogen explosion had happened, and the main core was melting. This results in a significant amount of radiation being released. 

Uranium is the core ingredient in the nuclear reaction and just like in the movie The China Syndrome, the molten uranium could melt through the bottom of the reactor. It was exactly what the movie had predicted just 12 days prior–and in the same place. 

The reactor was overheating, and they couldn’t stabilize it. The China Syndrome leak possibility was bad enough, but now an additional problem was emerging. There was the potential of a hydrogen bubble forming in the core. Put simply, there was the chance the entire reactor could blow up. 

How big could an explosion like this be? Would it be as bad as an atomic bomb? What would the blast radius be? This was Pennsylvania, and within 200 miles you had Washington, D.C. Philadelphia, and New York City. I live in Canada and am only about 400 miles away from Three Mile Island.

Panic Sets In at Three Mile Island

Opening the valve to release the heat and trapped gas was impossible–and who the hell would even do that? The radioactivity would kill anyone who even tried. The experts were standing around scratching their heads with no idea what to do.

And then the news reports started to come out.

In a pre-internet/social media age, only basic info was being shared by the news media. Some reported leaking radioactive gas, some saying about a potential explosion. And then others were reporting on the fact that senior officials at Three Mile Island had no idea what to do.

On the third day after the accident, a controlled release of gasses happened to try to take off some of the pressure. But this resulted in high radiation readings. Nearby citizens were obviously panicking. The governor then called for an evacuation of pregnant women and children.

Anyone within a five-mile radius was instructed to leave. How the hell could this happen? And what had actually happened? Was this thing going to blow at any second? Wasn’t this supposed to be the safe new energy source of the future? What kind of future do you call that?

Twelve days after the accident, most of the nearby towns were deserted. But then they were told everything was fine and over 140,000 people returned home. Officials seemed to have a handle on things and it turns out that the hydrogen bubble would not happen. Were things fine and everyone could get back to normal?

Officials were obviously trying to calm everyone, but there wasn’t any other option. President Jimmy Carter made a visit to try and calm the nerves of the locals–and the rest of the country. Carter, who actually studied nuclear power, worked on the nuclear submarine program and once helped to shut down a leaking nuclear reactor. Carter wanted to show everyone that everything was ok. 

So, What Happened at Three Mile Island?

Investigations and cleanup wouldn’t happen until the 1980s. But in the documentary, several people tell stories of things not seeming too right. One woman tells of hundreds of dead fish washing up on the shore. There were stories of skin lesions appearing on people who had been outside. Headaches, sore throats, and vomiting were also said to have increased after the accident.

It turns out a pressure valve was responsible for the accident. The valve became stuck open, and this was one of the initial contributors to the meltdown. The China Syndrome fear was legitimate. The pressure would have eventually eaten its way through the bottom of the pressure vessel. 

This wasn’t supposed to happen. And no one had even studied or prepared for a scenario like this. And it was actually worse than suspected. They wouldn’t even open up the reactor until 1984. Technology had improved so they could put cameras and audio equipment down the fuel cells. This is where they found that half the fuel had melted. This was way worse than they expected and a thousand times worse than they had reported. 

In the Netflix documentary, there is mention that Three Mile Island was only 30-60 minutes away from a catastrophic explosion. If the officials had not found that stuck pressure valve, god knows what we’d be discussing today in this podcast. 

Everyone’s worst fear had almost come true. And it was also a fear that both experts, and the public, didn’t know was even possible. People understandably flipped out. The news reports didn’t help. Some people claimed that an explosion would have killed 45,000 instantly and severely injured 250,000. Some people being interviewed on the news made statements such as the entire eastern seaboard could have been wiped out.

What were we to believe? Anyone who was against nuclear power now had all the proof they needed. Escaping a tragedy was nothing to be proud of–especially when the public didn’t get all the information. You can’t get people panicked, but holding the truth back doesn’t help, either. 

Clean Up at Three Mile Island, Shady Operations, and Whistleblowing

By John G. Kemeny et al – Report of The President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island: The Need for Change: The Legacy of TMI, p. 140, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7691771

Clean-up would go well into the 1980s. It took years just to figure out what the hell had happened. And it wouldn’t be cheap. The power plant that was barely three months old had cost around $700 million. The clean-up would go well over a billion. Converted for today, that’s over $2.6 billion.

A company called Bechtel would handle the cleanup. They had experience in nuclear clean-up, but also a lot of political connections that went straight to the new president: Ronald Reagan. For the energy industry, they just wanted to get this power plant up and running again. After all, they were losing/had lost a fortune. 

They wanted to get this done as quickly–and as cheaply–as possible. Was this the right approach when handling a nuclear accident? 

But even during the clean-up process, they apparently weren’t out of the woods yet–especially when it came to safety, and this is when it gets into corner-cutting and whistleblowing. This is the main focus of the Netflix documentary: the cover-ups by the NRC. People on the inside were worried about possible new radioactive exposure. And then there was the big issue they faced in 1983 with the critical Polar Crane Lift.

The Polar Crane would be the crane used to lift out the molten top of the reactor. But a man named Rick Parks–who is a central focus in the documentary–thought they were moving way too fast. He had received nuclear training with the US Army, and, from his perspective, the clean-up company wasn’t taking any safety precautions.

That original crane was destroyed in the accident, and a new one had to be built. But they built it really quickly. Parks and some other nuclear experts were alarmed that no testing was being conducted with the new crane. The crane would not lift simple debris, but an entire destroyed top of the reactor. If this thing dropped, it would crash into the entire molten reactor, which could essentially create a nuclear bomb.

He went to the clean-up company, and even the NRC to say how dangerous this was going to be–and they hadn’t even tested the damn thing. Speed was being emphasized over safety. Eventually, Parks turned over all the information he had to the Government Accountability Project. With lawyers, agents, and a lot of harassment in Parks’ own life, the NRC finally acknowledged the massive safety flaw in their crane plan and called off the lift the day it was supposed to happen. 

In July 1984, over five years after the accident, the lid of the reactor was finally lifted. And things went ok. Had this happened a year ago, when they intended, they may not have been so lucky. But at this point, the federal government was now horrified at all the newly found revelations of the disregard for safety during cleanup, and the entire accident itself. 

The Aftermath of Three Mile Island

Investigations found ‌many documents were falsified in the days leading to the opening of Three Mile Island. They just wanted to get the thing up and running. But violations had gone back to 1978. This was criminal conduct. According to the documentary, they even destroyed documents with negative information regarding leaks to allow the plant to continue running. 

News reports during the 80s shared ‌with us that documents filed with the US government showed how “there were many malfunctions of safety systems.” Leaks were apparently happening regularly, and it was believed that one of these leaks was responsible for damaging that one critical valve which caused it to get stuck open. Apparently, months before the accident, plant managers at Three Mile Island had concealed leaks in the critical water cooling system from government regulators.

Basically, Three Mile Island looked like it was an accident waiting to happen. The NRC was not looking too good, and neither was the future of nuclear power.

The NRC had apparently been lying since day one of the accident. Operators testified ‌‌they knew how dangerous the actions they had taken were. And during those first few days after the accident, the company continued to downplay the severity of what was going on. 

The NRC said they didn’t believe melting was happening when it appears they knew it from early on. And no one was told how this could cause the release of lethal radiation. Should they have evacuated people that very first day? On the day of the accident, the operators in Three Mile Island knew of the hydrogen bubble and didn’t report it for days. It was also revealed that there was a smaller explosion inside the plant with photographic evidence of things like melted telephones. 

Again, this was withheld from not only the government but the public. 

And how much radiation was released? I don’t think we’ll ever know. According to the documentary, people within a five-mile radius were monitored for years and there didn’t seem to be adverse effects. But would negative effects happen later on, and to the future generations? There is some info presented in the documentary that in areas more downwind from Three Mile Island, there are apparently more adverse health effects on the citizens. The problem is that it’s hard to make any definite conclusions. 

In May 1985, there were talks of reactivating reactor #1. It had not been damaged in the accident and seemed safe to restart. Despite all the indictments of the NRC, restarting this reactor would show they were ready to move forward. 

But the trust seemed to be gone. Too much lying had dismayed the community from ever believing them again. But in 1985, Three Mile Island would go back into operation. 

Final Thoughts on Three Mile Island

I was too young to remember Three Mile Island, and my knowledge of it has always been extremely minimal. I had no idea how close it came to being catastrophic, and how deep the aftermath of it really went. To me, Three Mile Island always seemed more of a “close call.” Yes, a disaster was averted, but, at the time, it was the worst commercial nuclear accident ever–and we can see now how bad it could have been. 

But the nuclear industry seemed to never fully recover. Since the accident in 1979, only two new reactors had been licensed to be opened in the US. But because of many setbacks–and being billions of dollars over budget–they have never opened. 

The hope was the accident at Three Mile Island would be our closest brush with the dangers of nuclear power. But on April 26, 1986–almost exactly seven years later, and in a whole different country–the world would soon learn how catastrophic a nuclear accident could be. 


Comments are closed.