TMI 40th Anniversary 10.jpg

With the 40th anniversary of Three Mile Island's nuclear meltdown set to take place later this month, two of the active cooling towers are the backdrop on Rt. 441 as a truck travels south of Middletown, on Thursday, March 14, 2019.


Forty years ago today, in the quiet hour between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., a combination of equipment failure and human error ignited one of the biggest scares in Pennsylvania history. At Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Unit 2 suffered a partial meltdown of the reactor core, just three months after it had been commissioned. “When word got out, thousands of Lancaster County residents fled the area, and the fears of those first few days are still burned into the collective consciousness of a generation,” Ad Crable wrote in last weekend’s Sunday LNP. Now, we are faced with the possible closure of TMI’s Unit 1 this fall (and we remain opposed to any ratepayer subsidy of nuclear energy that would stave off that closure). We also face continuing concern about the radioactive uranium and plutonium that will remain indefinitely at TMI.

Crable was spot-on when he wrote that the memories from March 28, 1979, and the days after are “burned into the collective consciousness of a generation.”

Some of those powerful memories appeared in Sunday LNP and in the comments section of LancasterOnline:

— “My four sons were at Milton Hershey School. I got a call at work to come pick them up IMMEDIATELY. I can remember the frantic drive from Lancaster to Hershey, then the frantic ride back, wondering what to do. We got back to my rented trailer and just sat and waited for instructions to evacuate.”

— “My mom said to me, ‘Why are we getting groceries? There may not be a tomorrow.’ ”

— “My sixth-grade class were on our way there on a field trip. We turned around with really no explanation. I didn’t know till I got home and my mom told me why.”

— “Later that evening ... we did notice how eerily quiet and empty the streets of Lancaster were, and how many stray animals had just been turned loose by their owners.”

— “I could see TMI towers in front of me as the news broke on the radio!”

The fear was visceral.

It is something those living here then will never forget.

And how could we, with those four enormous cooling towers — steam often rising from two — dominating the skyline just west of Elizabethtown and southeast of Harrisburg?

TMI, those three letters that give pause even now, is embedded in our psyche.

The accident left much more than an imprint on multiple generations of central Pennsylvanians. As Crable wrote, “The impact of what happened on an island in the Susquehanna River profoundly affected both the nuclear industry and the public’s attitude toward power from the atom.”

Lessons, repercussions

Employee safety and education at nuclear plants improved following 1979’s partial meltdown. “Waves of ‘lessons learned’ required U.S. nuclear plants to be retrofitted with added safety features,” Crable wrote, adding that “the role of human error in the accident led to increased operator training and added staffing. ... (And) emergency preparedness both by the plant and for those living close to a nuclear facility were revamped.”

Meanwhile, we can point with pride at how Pennsylvanians reacted and came together in 1979.

As G. Terry Madonna and Michael Young wrote in a column on these pages last week, newly inaugurated Gov. Dick Thornburgh “faced a challenge more consequential than any of his predecessors” and “as the crisis continued ... was unflappable, producing a performance almost universally lauded.” Thornburgh kept us calm and informed at a time of true crisis and uncertainty. And he never pushed the proverbial “panic button,” which could have dramatically worsened the emergency.

Many in Lancaster County and southcentral Pennsylvania were similarly unflappable, going about their daily lives as best they could while knowing they might have to pack up and evacuate at a moment’s notice.

But living through that fostered a viewpoint about nuclear energy — here and elsewhere in America — that persists today.

It is a mindset that continues to influence energy discussion. We should be having a robust debate about whether Generation III and Generation IV nuclear reactors — which appear to be much safer and more efficient than plants built in the 1960s and 1970s — should be part of our nation’s electricity grid.

But the TMI accident — plus our dread over what happened in Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011 — make that conversation difficult, at best.


Concerns over fuel

Meanwhile, there remains the status of the spent fuel stored on Three Mile Island. It’s a concern that will linger for future generations.

“The most unwanted part of the plant — radioactive uranium and plutonium — will likely remain on the island for the rest of your lifetime, regardless of your age,” Crable wrote Sunday.

There are multiple options for the process of decommissioning TMI. Decisions must be made about when to begin dismantling the noncontaminated buildings, including the iconic cooling towers. Those materials will either be recycled or deposited in local landfills, according to Crable.

Second, there are special landfills for low-level radioactive waste, and Exelon officials are undecided about whether to start dismantling and moving that material immediately — or years from now.

Finally, and of most concern, there is, as Crable writes, “the tricky task of moving around spent radioactive fuel.”

Moving around.

But not moving it off TMI.

“Whether decommissioning at TMI starts within a few years or decades later, the first order of business would be to remove the radioactive fuel from the reactor and place it into a large, 40-foot-deep pool of water,” Crable wrote, adding that “the fuel assemblies will be placed alongside some 1,200 metric tons of previously used spent fuel. The water is constantly cooled to keep the fuel from catching fire and to shield radiation.”

Since 9/11, the on-site storage facilities are required to be strong enough to withstand terrorist attacks, plane crashes and natural disasters, including earthquakes.

They were supposed to be temporary. But there is no place for the spent fuel to go. The U.S. government promised, in 1982, that it would have a national repository for spent nuclear fuel by 1998. But, as Crable notes, “no repository has ever been built, and no resolution is in sight. So nuclear plants are forced to build above-ground miniature fortresses and to arrange to maintain them indefinitely, even after the last vestige of the nuclear plant is hauled away.”

While it is somewhat comforting that strong protective measures are being taken with the spent fuel, it gives us great unease to realize how long that deadly radioactive waste will remain at TMI, with nearly a quarter-million people living within a 10-mile radius of the site.

If TMI closes in September, we may finally be rid of those wailing emergency siren tests and the dread they can summon, deep down in our gut.

But the memory of those sirens and the memories of 1979 will remain vivid for many. And the danger in our backyard will remain real. For a long time still.