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7 things you didn't know about TMI: Pop culture and beyond

  • 3 min to read

The partial meltdown of the Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant was an event with a massive impact. Local residents evacuated the area, and the incident changed the conversation around nuclear power and its risks - not just locally, but around the world.

But the meltdown also had repercussions through popular culture.

Here are a few TMI-related facts and stories you might not know.


1. TMI's name is a mistake

Wikipedia says the island is three miles from Middletown and that is how it got its name.

Exelon says “TMI is so named because it is located three miles from Harrisburg International Airport.” The airport is in Londonderry Township, along the Susquehanna just upriver from Middletown.

These answers are wrong, according to someone who actually knows how the island was named - Louis M. Waddell, former staff historian for the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission at Harrisburg.

Waddell said the source of the name was a geological survey made by the U.S. Department of the Interior in 1963 from an aerial survey made two years earlier. Someone apparently believed the island was about 3 miles long and people began calling it “Three Mile Island.”

But the name is inaccurate, Waddell explained, because the island’s maximum length is 2.2 miles. You could add another .3 miles for two little islands just north of the main island, but no matter how you measure it, it's not three miles long.


2. 'The China Syndrome' predated the TMI incident by 12 days

china syndrome

"China Syndrome"

On March 16, 1979, “The China Syndrome” opened in movie theaters. The thriller, starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, focuses on the risk of a disastrous meltdown at a nuclear power plant. Representatives of the nuclear industry spoke out against the film, calling it “character assassination of an entire industry,” according to The New York Times. 

Twelve days later, the Three Mile Island incident occurred. Though the film technically predates the accident, the two became linked in popular perception – especially as the film contains a line referring to a meltdown rendering an area the size of the state of Pennsylvania uninhabitable.

Source: New York Times; IMDB.com


3. 'I survived TMI' merchandise was a thing

A variety of T-shirts claiming “I Survived TMI” (or variations on that phrase) were made and sold throughout the region in the aftermath of the nuclear incident. Similar designs and slogans also appeared on everything from ashtrays to coffee mugs.


4. Bands wrote songs about the meltdown

The TMI incident wasn’t just in the local consciousness, it was world news. Hundreds of musicians – mostly folk and punk – referenced the incident in songs. 

While many were local to Central Pennsylvania and most were relative unknowns, chart-topping Australian band Midnight Oil in 1984 released its second album, “Red Sails in the Sunset,” which featured a song called “Harrisburg.” It was a clear condemnation from the politically minded group of the TMI incident, with lyrics stating "It's stuff you cannot taste or see / It's stuff you cannot smell / It's stuff that's twenty times as hot / As the hottest stuff in hell. / Harrisburg, oh Harrisburg / The plant is melting down / The people out in Harrisburg / Are getting out of town.”

Source: allmusic.com; tapewrecks.blogspot.com


5. You can buy a TMI-themed beer

TMI 40th Anniversary 12.jpg

With the 40th anniversary of Three Mile Island's nuclear meltdown set to take place later this month, Dave Morrow, of Elizabethtown, head brewer at Tattered Flag Brewery in Middletown, holds an IPA with a TMI theme on Thursday, March 14, 2019.

Tattered Flag, a brewery in Middletown, is located within sight of the Three Mile Island cooling towers. In fact, patrons can see the looming towers from the brewery's windows. 

It makes sense, then, that Tattered Flag's TMIPA is a flagship product. It's available on draft and in cans, and is made with four varieties of hops, to match the four cooling towers.


6. A local family made and sold a TMI board game

TMI board game

The partial core meltdown of a nuclear reactor may not seem like a great topic for a night of family fun, but “React-or,” a locally produced board game released in the wake of the TMI accident, may be proof to the contrary. 

Designed and handmade by Diane and Edward Sandnes of York County with the help of their then-6-year-old son, Adam, the game involved players trying to move through an overheating reactor with as little radiation exposure as possible. Three hundred copies of the game were made, but only about 100 were sold in local shops. The game was never sold nationally.

Source: WITF.org


7. The X-Men showed up at TMI

TMI – both the incident and the location – have remained a significant presence in pop culture over the last 40 years. For example, in the 2009 Marvel movie “X-Men Origins: Wolverine,” the power plant serves as a secret prison for mutants run by the villainous William Stryker. It also serves as the setting for a climactic battle between Wolverine and Sabertooth.



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