Eighty year old retired salesman John Garver the morning of March 28, 1979 remembers the acrid odor permeating Harrisburg as he walked out of a restaurant in Pennsylvania’s capital city.
“We had this smell in the air, wondering what it was. Well it didn’t take us long to find out … that the accident started.”
Fourteen miles away, the “accident” was unfolding in Unit 2 at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant, triggering panic, confusion, and within days an evacuation order.
The partial meltdown sparked national protests, prompted increased safety standards for the nuclear power industry, and largely stymied the industry’s momentum for decades until recent alarm over climate change has made some begin to embrace expanding carbon-free nuclear power.
Today, the remaining reactor (Unit 1) will generate its last kilowatt of energy and close. Three Mile Island was not a victim of the anti-nuclear movement; but rather, it lost out to simple economics. Even though the plant is licensed to operate until 2034, Exelon Generation is ceasing operations after the state of Pennsylvania earlier this year refused to throw the company a financial lifeline to keep it open.
The plant’s four cooling towers will remain a part of the landscape for now as foreboding concrete tombstones seemingly out of place in the bucolic Susquehanna Valley of central Pennsylvania and a reminder of what happened March 28, 1979.
Taking a Second Look
Senator Cory Booker; “Right now, nuclear is more than 50% of our non-carbon causing energy. People who think we can get there without nuclear being part of the blend just aren’t looking at the facts.”
Economic factors such as cheap natural gas and increasingly affordable renewable sources are slowly driving nuclear power out of business. Additionally, diminished demand has also hurt profitability in addition to rising operational costs. The closure of the Three Mile Island facility will leave 97 commercial reactors at 59 plants, scattered across 30 states, remaining in operation.
According to U.S. Energy Information Administration, the Watts Bar Unit 2 in Tennessee was the last nuclear power plant to come on line in 2010. Two more reactors are under construction in Georgia (Nuclear Regulatory Commission [NRC]). No more are planned as of yet.
Pro-industry group, World Nuclear Association: “Public confidence in nuclear energy in the US declined following the Three Mile Island accident. It was a major cause of the decline in nuclear construction through the 1980s and 1990s.”
Harrisburg resident and Chair of the Three Mile Island Alert organization Eric Epstein: “If there is a good thing that happened because of TMI, it had ignited a fierce debate on the viability of nuclear power being safe, reliable, economical, etc.”
It still remains to be seen if more reactors will be built to supplement US energy needs.
“Three Mile Island closes: meltdown changed nuclear energy in America,” USA Today, Ledyard King, September 20, 2019