Three Mile Island at 40: ‘We were told a nuclear accident was as likely as a meteor falling from the sky’

March 25, 2019 2:06 pm

Three Mile Island. (Z22/Wikimedia Commons)

It doesn’t take long for Gene Stilp to sum up the legacy of Three Mile Island.

“It’s an ongoing accident,” said Stilp, a veteran activist who lived through the accident. “It’s a horrendous financial disaster. And there will never be a full assessment of what happened health-wise. And the nuclear waste from Three Mile Island will last forever, sitting here in the middle of the Susquehanna River.”

As the 40th anniversary of America’s worst nuclear accident closes in on Thursday, the one thing that’s striking is how present it always seems.

The partial meltdown at Reactor No. 2 on March 28, 1979 that prompted the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of central Pennsylvania residents is, at once, a distant artifact of the Carter era, and as recent as an episode of “The Big Bang Theory.”

And maybe that’s because Three Mile Island is as much a part of the psychic topography of central Pennsylvania as the Susquehanna River, snaking through the middle of Harrisburg, is a part of its actual physical topography.

If you crane your neck as you’re driving across the South Bridge on Interstate 83, heading into the Capital City, you can catch a glimpse of the plant’s cooling towers, often belching steam into the sky. You can see them clearly as you head down Interstate 283 toward the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

The power plant is ever-present, a reminder of America’s vaunting ambition to reach a future free of a dependence on foreign oil, but also an existential threat, a real-life “China Syndrome,” whose trauma still reverberates all these years later.

“If you’re from this area, like I am, you thought it was the boringest place in the world until it was almost taken from you and ripped away,” Eric Epstein, the founder of the advocacy group Three Mile Island Alert and an accident survivor, said during a Monday news conference in the state Capitol rotunda. “… I remember my father driving me down to Three Mile Island and … I thought this was the answer, the solution: energy too cheap to meter. We were told that a nuclear accident was as likely as a meteor falling from the sky.”

I’d heard of Three Mile Island as a kid — we all had. But I had no real conception of where it was, or of it being as palpably real, until I passed the cooling towers on an afternoon drive not long after I move to the area in 1999, and learned I lived just miles away.

In the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, I drove down and interviewed neighbors and officials, when it was briefly feared the plant was a potential target for terrorists.

And then there’s “Clampdown,” the track from The Clash’s 1979’s LP “London Calling,” that memorializes Three Mile Island, as singer Joe Strummer spots it out the tour bus window: “Yeah I’m working in Harrisburg.” We all heard that one, too.

Four decades on, experts are still trying to understand the long-term health impacts of the accident, since, as PennLive reports, “ionized radiation had been released to the atmosphere and tons of radioactive uranium had been compromised.”

As PennLive reports, the official stance from federal regulators is that the amount of radiation released into the air was no more than the amount of exposure from an X-ray. Some still don’t buy that official line.

Tim Judson, an advocate who spoke at Monday’s Capitol news conference, says the claim that the partial meltdown at Reactor 2 “didn’t really hurt anyone … is and has been a deliberate mistelling of history from the moments after the disaster started.”

And this spring, policymakers will have another kind of debate over Three Mile Island, as they consider whether consumers should be asked to pick up the tab for a $500 million bailout of the state’s financially struggling nuclear power industry.

There’s already significant pushback from environmentalists and industry interests against the Republican-written bill. Regional utility giant PPL, for instance, says the bailout will cost its customers an estimated $130 million a year. 

As the accident recedes into memory and its survivors pass into late-middle or old age, Stilp says it’s up to eyewitnesses like him to keep the memory of the accident alive and to make sure that younger residents of the midstate understand its impact.

“Only a limited number of people understand the full magnitude” of what happened, he said. “People are living their lives. And it’s up to those of us who lived through it to remember. The battle is ongoing. We’re not going away.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

John L. Micek
John L. Micek

A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press.