The partial core meltdown at Three Mile Island near Middletown, Pennsylvania, in 1979 was considered the most severe accident in the US commercial nuclear plant history. While major disaster was ultimately averted, the conflicting reports that emerged at the beginning regarding radioactive leaks caused a lot of confusion to the surrounding residents. Netflix’s four-part docuseries ‘Meltdown: Three Mile Island’ dives into what led to the accident and how it was dealt with. So, if you’re curious about the island’s current status and whether it’s still radioactive, here’s what we know.
Is Three Mile Island Still Radioactive?
On March 28, 1979, one of the two reactors at Three Mile Island began to have problems. At around 4 am that morning, a mechanical or electric failure resulted in pumps not being able to send water to the generators that cool the nuclear reactor. A series of events ensued that led to the nuclear core being exposed, causing a partial meltdown. The accident resulted from a combination of equipment malfunction, worker errors, and design-related issues.
In the beginning, the company that set up the plant claimed that no radiation had been detected, but because of conflicting information, about 140,000 residents of Middletown left the town initially. Later on, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission conducted studies regarding the radioactivity in the area, in addition to tests carried out by the EPA, the Department of Energy, and others. It was concluded that the people received an estimated average of about one millirem over the usual background dose.
Several other studies indicated that despite the damage to the reactor, the release didn’t have any serious effect on the health of the people living in the surrounding area. However, one study mentioned an increase in cancer rates in the residents around Three Mile Island that persisted for about two years in the early 1980s. While the second unit was completely shut down after the accident, Unit 1 started back up in 1985.
Over the years, about 99% of the second unit’s fuel was removed, and the radioactive water was decontaminated. In addition, the radioactive waste from the accident was taken off-site. But the decommissioning is scheduled to be completed in 2037, and the interior portions still carry high radiation levels. As for Unit 1, it was closed down in 2019. While the area is still radioactive, it isn’t considered lethal to people or nature.
Aaron Datesman, an energy scientist, talked about radioactive material still being present on-site because it operated until recently. He stated that the spent fuel rods are radioactive, adding, “A human being standing close to an unshielded hot fuel rod would receive a lethal dose of radiation in just minutes. The spent fuel rods must be stored in a pool of water for a long time while the radioactivity slowly decays, over a period of years to decades.”
The process of dismantling the reactors would take decades, and the nuclear waste was expected to remain on the island. Eric Epstein, a resident of nearby Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, said, “TMI is going to remain radioactive for the rest of human history. I can’t think of a worse place to store radioactive waste than an island in the Susquehanna.” He believed that a natural disaster would potentially cause radiation to be released if the waste was stored on the island.
Can You Visit Three Mile Island? Is it Open To the Public?
Unit 1 on Three Mile Island permanently closed down in September 2019, but the process is far from over. The disassembling is not expected to happen until 2074, and the radioactive waste would only be removed or disposed of about four years after that, in 2078. While there have been tours of the island in the past, sometime after 2015, the public was only allowed to visit certain areas like the control room simulator and training center.
Given the radioactive components that are still present on the island, it seems that the general public isn’t allowed access. However, one can still see the plant from a road along the river south of Harrisburg International Airport. While there were over 500 people employed at the plant in 2019 at the time of Unit 1’s closing, it was estimated that the number would drop to about 50 by 2022.
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