Feature

Three Mile Island: The fallout, 30 years later

Thirty years after the accident at Three Mile Island, are Americans close to accepting nuclear power as an alternative source of energy?

When Mary Osborn of Swatara Township, Pa., awoke on March 28, 1979, she knew something was wrong, said Bonnie Pfister in the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Normally, the birds would have been chirping and the air perfumed with chocolate from the Hershey’s factory. But on this morning, Osborn recalls, no birds sang, and “all we could smell and taste was metal.” Just a few miles away, the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history was unfolding at Three Mile Island. Thirty years ago last week, equipment malfunctions and worker error triggered a partial meltdown of Unit Two’s reactor core, releasing an explosion of toxic steam that exposed 2 million people to low-level radiation. More than an environmental disaster, said David Shribman in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the accident was “a cultural marker,” rendering nuclear power politically toxic. “It chilled a nation, and the industry, for decades.”

But fortunately, said Jeff Jacoby in The Boston Globe, we could be on the cusp of a “nuclear renaissance.” Due to “overblown claims about the dangers of reactor meltdowns,” not a single nuclear plant has been built since the TMI accident. But with new safeguards in place, and solar and wind power still struggling to prove their efficacy, the “war against the atom” is fading. A new Gallup poll found that 59 percent of Americans—an all-time high—favor nuclear power to help meet our energy needs, and utilities have asked permission to license 30 new nuclear plants. Most significantly, the environmentalists who were the loudest foes of nuclear power have found “a new pariah—fossil fuels and their carbon dioxide emissions.” Now that it has dawned on them that nuclear plants release no greenhouse gases, “some of the world’s most ardent Greens have come around to embracing nuclear power.”

Before we throw caution to the wind, said Susan Stranahan in The Philadelphia Inquirer, let’s remember “the issue that has haunted nuclear power since Day One: waste disposal.’’ We still have no long-term place to store the highly radioactive, spent fuel rods from the 103 existing reactors. That waste “remains dangerous for thousands of years.” The fuel rods and other radioactive waste was supposed to go to Yucca Mountain in Nevada, but fierce local opposition and fading federal resolve mean the storage facility there “will never open.’’ So all the waste is being stored at the power plants, which are running out of room. Face it: A generation after Three Mile Island, nuclear power remains “a high-stakes gamble.”

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