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Three Mile Island 40 years on

28/03/2019

Three Mile Island 40 Years on with some personal recollections from the Kromek team

 It was 40 years ago today (28 March 1979)  that the Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred. The Unit 2 (TMI-2) nuclear meltdown may not have been as disastrous as later nuclear incidents because the containment building remained intact, but it still ranks as the most serious nuclear accident in America.

Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station is located on Three Mile Island on the Susquehanna River, Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania.

Els Wittlinger, who works in Shipping/Receiving at Kromek in Zelienople, Pennsylvania remember the incident well.

“Actually I know the area and the time very well. I grew up about 3 miles from there and when it happened I lived 20 miles from there. It was a truly scary time. Most of my family still lives in the area.”

“My sister had told me that there were employees of the Three Mile Island that had stopped into their gas station and said that there was some sort of leak in one of the reactors. A few days went by before the public was alerted to the problem. Then there was an urgent message that went out for people to leave the area if they lived within 10 miles of the plant. My parents and siblings choose to stay. The grass around the house them actually turned black, I was told.”

The incident

The accident started when a cleaning operation damaged some equipment at the plant which then created and exposed a cascade of human errors, design problems and mechanical failures: for example, at one point a bulb showed a valve closed when it was, in fact, open, creating confusion as to what was actually happening.

The reactor core suffered a partial meltdown because of the build-up of heat created issue with the coolant system but because the pressure vessel surrounding the core held there was not a massive release of radiation to the environment.

The story quickly became world news and created a backlash against nuclear power with the construction of new nuclear plants slowing down significantly.

Approximately 2.5 megacuries (93 PBq) of radioactive gases and approximately 15 curies (560 GBq) of iodine-131 was released into the environment (taken from Rogovin, Mitchell (1980). Three Mile Island: A report to the Commissioners and to the Public, Volume I (PDF). Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Special Inquiry Group. Archived from the original (PDF) on November 30, 2010)

The movie connection

The Three Mile Island nuclear accident occurred twelve days after the film The China Syndrome opened in theatres across America. This film about a nuclear meltdown at a nuclear plant took its plot from real life events at Dresden Nuclear Power Plant, June 1970.

Bill Brickner, HR Manager in Kromek, Zelienople says he had seen the movie a couple of weeks before the Three Mile Island events, remembers vividly where he was when he heard.

“My Dad and I were driving through Ohio visiting several universities and colleges that I was considering attending.  I was a junior (eleventh-grade) in high school. A couple of weeks before a group of us saw the movie China Syndrome. Didn’t really think much of it until the real thing happened in my home state even though we lived over 200 miles away from Three Mile Island.  It dominated the news for weeks.”

What is happening to Three Mile now?

The unit 2 reactor at Three Mile Island remains closed to this day. Unit 1 is operating but is scheduled to close in 2019.

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