The Shadow of Three Mile Island

On the first day of high school every year, my classmates and I would receive a form to remind us that our school fell within the radiation perimeter of Three Mile Island. In the case of a nuclear emergency, we would be evacuated and administered potassium iodide tablets to protect our thyroids. We always treated it as a bit of a joke. After all, if TMI were to experience another meltdown, our thyroids would be the least of our concerns.

This week marks the 40th anniversary of the partial meltdown of Three Mile Island’s Unit 2 reactor. The anniversary comes at an interesting time for Pennsylvania politics, as plant-owner Exelon has announced that it will close TMI this fall without state intervention to ensure nuclear energy remains competitive.

Three Mile Island as seen from the Pennsylvania Turnpike while driving from Hershey to Gettysburg. Note the steam from the two cooling towers.

I’m not even close to being an expert on TMI or nuclear power, so I’m writing this piece more as a personal meditation on the experience of growing up so close to a place where near catastrophe took place. I can’t speak to the experience of others, not those of my generation and certainly not those of Central Pennsylvanians in March 1979. WITF and PA Post have been collaborating on a month-long retrospective of the event and its legacy that’s worth checking out if you’re interested in hearing the perspectives of other stakeholders.

I was born at Penn State Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, the same hospital where dozens of people were treated during the disaster 15 years earlier. I think I first became aware of Three Mile Island because a friend’s father worked there. When my family flew out of nearby Harrisburg International Airport, my parents would point out massive cooling towers on a small island on the Susquehanna. At the time, all I knew was that it was a special place where they made energy.

It was probably in middle school that I learned that Three Mile Island once “blew up.” People still lived in the area decades later, though, so I thought it must not have been that serious. I still had no understanding of what a partial meltdown actually was, how terrifying 1979 had been, or what had happened 7 years later at Chernobyl. I didn’t realize how significant TMI was in American history or that growing up near a famous nuclear plant was an atypical experience. TMI was something that was just there.

Only years later, after watching the harrowing coverage of Fukushima in 2011, could I begin to understand what a meltdown would have meant for me, my family, and my community. The landmarks of my childhood might not have existed by the time I was born. Who would want to visit an irradiated Hersheypark, or eat chocolate made from the milk of cows that glowed? For that matter, my parents didn’t even move to Central Pennsylvania until the late 1980s, so I may not have been born in Hershey at all.

Even though I know all this, TMI continues to be something that is “just there,” beyond the periphery of my daily awareness. That passive acceptance is made easier because nuclear accidents continue to be incredibly rare worldwide. Reactor 1 chugs quietly along, or it will until September 20 without state intervention. The facility will then have to be decommissioned through a decades-long process; the spent fuel will take thousands of years to decay.

On the one hand, I felt some small relief when I heard TMI might close. Having a nuclear plant adjacent to an airport has always seemed a bit like a design flaw, especially after 9/11. Beyond that, no technology is perfect, no matter its safety record, and incidents remain a possibility. And while health officials maintain that the only radiation that escaped in 1979 was negligible, the debate continues over evidence of unusual rates of cancer in the region.

That being said, I don’t think we should be ready to give up on nuclear. It’s not green like wind, water, and solar, but it doesn’t produce carbon emissions like coal, oil, or gas. In the fight against climate change, we might need every carbon-neutral source of energy until truly green energy is sufficient.

Some people call the industry’s request for state intervention a bailout or subsidy, but the request is more complex. Nuclear companies would like to see the state add nuclear to the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard to require energy suppliers to purchase a quota of their energy from sustainable sources. This would in essence allow nuclear to compete better against coal and gas. In that sense, it’s not a laissez-faire approach, but the alternatives are not good either. The closure of TMI and other power plants could increase energy prices significantly for some in the state. Moreover, if nuclear power disappears, the void will be filled with cheaper sources, not greener ones.

Nuclear power should be at the front of most Pennsylvanians’ minds this week. A milestone anniversary like this provides a valuable opportunity to think about our past and future. Within months, PA lawmakers will make a decision on the future of Three Mile Island and nuclear power in our state. This decision will influence similar debates across the country, and to the degree that nuclear is part of a viable carbon-neutral energy portfolio, it may have ramifications for the world. Whether you support or oppose nuclear power, now is the time to learn more and make your voice heard.

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