On this day in 1979, the worst accident in the history of the US nuclear power industry occurs at reactor number 2 of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station (TMI-2) in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, near Harrisburg. Cooling water, contaminated with radiation, drained from the open valve into adjoining buildings, causing a partial meltdown and releasing radioactive gases and iodine into the environment. The incident was rated a five on the seven-point International Nuclear Event Scale: Accident with wider consequences.
The accident began with failures in the non-nuclear secondary system, followed by a stuck-open pilot-operated relief valve in the primary system, which allowed large amounts of nuclear reactor coolant to escape.
The mechanical failures were compounded by the initial failure of plant operators to recognize the situation as a loss-of-coolant accident due to inadequate training and human factors, such as human-computer interaction design oversights relating to ambiguous control room indicators in the power plant’s user interface. In particular, a hidden indicator light led to an operator manually overriding the automatic emergency cooling system of the reactor because the operator mistakenly believed that there was too much coolant water present in the reactor and causing the steam pressure release.
The accident crystallized anti-nuclear safety concerns among activists and the general public, resulted in new regulations for the nuclear industry, and has been cited as a contributor to the decline of a new reactor construction program that was already underway in the 1970’s. With the partial meltdown and release of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the environment, deep worries were expressed by anti-nuclear movement activists;
Many epidemiological studies analyzing the rate of cancer in and around the area since the accident determined there was a small statistically non-significant increase in the rate and thus no causal connection linking the accident with these cancers has been substantiated. However, a peer-reviewed research article by Dr. Steven Wing found a significant increase in cancers from 1979–1985 among people who lived within ten miles of TMI; in 2009 Dr. Wing stated that radiation releases during the accident were probably “thousands of times greater” than the NRC’s estimates.
Cleanup started in August 1979, and officially ended in December 1993, with a total cleanup cost of about $1 billion. The entire episode, however, has not discouraged the current POTUS from calling for a re-invigorated nuclear power industry, despite the profligacy of cheap natural gas.