Three Mile Island Still Active 40 Years After Nuclear Meltdown, But May Not Be For Long

The Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant is seen in the early morning hours March 28, 2011 in Middletown, Pennsylvania.
Jeff Fusco / Getty Images

Forty years after what was known to be the most significant U.S. nuclear power plant accident in history, Three Mile Island may soon be shutting down for good. Exelon, the nuclear electric power generation company that oversees the power plant in south-central Pennsylvania, announced two years ago that Three Mile Island would come to an end if it continued to see financial losses. Now, in 2019, the threat may very well become a reality.

On March 28, 1979, the second reactor of Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania (TMI-2) experienced a partial meltdown, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC)’s official backgrounder. A mechanical or electrical failure caused a malfunction in the cooling unit, which allowed the core in TMI-2 to melt.

The accident led to a radioactive leak, although not enough to cause any adverse health concerns for workers or local residents. Still, at the time, the incident at Three Mile Island was known to be the most serious in U.S. nuclear power plant history. Fear and distrust in the public rose as anti-nuclear activists pushed for new regulations in the industry. The Institute of Nuclear Power Operations was soon formed as a direct response to the accident, created with the intention of putting safety first.

TMI-2 was permanently shut down and 99 percent of the fuel has been removed. TMI-1 was restarted in 1985, however, and has operated at “high levels of safety and reliability,” according to the World Nuclear Association.

The Three Mile Island accident left a permanent scar in the nuclear industry and stunted its historic growth. In the last several years, Exelon has seen multiple financial losses and previously failed in an auction to sell Three Mile Island’s power into the regional grid. As a result, the company announced its plan for shutdown in 2017, which could only be stopped with the help of the state.

“The commonwealth has an opportunity to take a leadership role by implementing a policy solution to preserve its nuclear energy facilities and the clean, reliable energy and good-paying jobs they provide,” Exelon’s president and CEO, Chris Crane, said in a statement at the time, as quoted by CBS.

At the time of the announcement, 675 workers were employed on top of another 1,500 local union workers who came in periodically for refueling. The potential closing has caused concerns for not only these employees but for local shops who benefit from the business of the plant’s employees, as well as the Lower Dauphin School District, which receives money from Exelon in property taxes.

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“Any time you take anything away from an area that’s contributing to the economy — you take that away, it’s going to hurt a little,” said Robert Reid, the former mayor of Middletown, Pennsylvania.

Many residents are pushing for state lawmakers to intervene and save Three Mile Island, while others are still not sure the loss will make such a big impact.

Three Mile Island will shut down in the fall of 2019 should Exelon move forward with their plans.