On March 28, 1979, a little more than thirty-five years ago, a nuclear reactor located on an island in the Susquehanna River near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, suffered a partial core melt.
On some levels, the accident that became known as TMI (Three Mile Island) was a wake-up call and an expensive learning opportunity for both the nuclear industry and the society it was attempting to serve. Some people woke up, some considered the event a nightmare that they would do anything to avoid repeating, and some hard lessons were properly identified and absorbed. Unfortunately, some people learned the wrong lessons and some of the available lessons were never properly interpreted or assimilated.
The melted fuel remained inside the TMI unit 2 pressure vessel, nearly all the volatile and water-soluble fission products remained inside the reactor containment, and there were no public health impacts. The plant was a total loss after just three months of commercial operation, the plant buildings required a clean-up effort that took 14 years, the plant owner went bankrupt, and the utility customers paid dearly for the accident.
The other unit on the same site, TMI-1, continues to operate well today under a different owner.
Although the orders for new nuclear power plants had already stopped several years before the accident, and there were already people writing off the nuclear industry’s chances for a recovery, the TMI accident’s emotional and financial impacts added another obstacle to new plant project development.
In the United States, it took more than 30 years to finally begin building new nuclear power plants. These plants incorporate some of the most important lessons in their design and operational concepts from the beginning of the project development process. During the new plant construction hiatus, the U.S. electricity industry remained as dependent as ever on burning coal and burning natural gas.
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