A new generation of Americans can learn about the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster on Netflix 43 years later.
Meltdown: Three Mile Island, the streaming service’s new documentary series, debuted on May 4 and tells the story of the worst nuclear accident in US history through a combination of historical footage and re-enactments.
But what was the true Three Mile Island, and why are Americans still discussing it? Even four decades later, learning the entire story is difficult. Official reports from the time were incomplete and sometimes misleading, and memories of the event have become hazy. Here’s a rundown of what we do know.
What happened at Three Mile Island?
The Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station was a decommissioned nuclear power plant in Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania. TMI-1 and TMI-2 were its two reactors.
TMI-2 is the point at which things went wrong. Water-coolant pumps at the reactor began to fail around 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, causing it to overheat. Unbeknownst to the operators, a relief valve had become stuck open, allowing valuable cooling water to escape even though the chamber appeared to be full. Confusion caused the operators to turn off the pumps, causing the reactor to overheat even more.
The Three Mile Island core breach triggered a massive environmental and government conundrum that required the combined resources of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the United States Department of Energy, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Despite the media outrage and the decommissioning of Reactor Unit 2 (the location of the facility’s leak), no one was killed as a result of the accident or the radiation released by the facility. According to energy.gov, approximately 2 million people were exposed to radiation as a result of the meltdown, but those figures do not indicate any serious radiation exposure.
According to the Netflix series Meltdown: Three Mile Island, the radiation leak caused by Unit 2 at the facility was caused by malfunctioning instruments. On March 28, 1979, plant operators were misled into believing that coolant levels in the reactor were normal when, in fact, they were dangerously low. The lack of coolant resulted in a partial meltdown, which made national headlines.
According to a timeline compiled by the Patriot-News, the first press conferences on the incident took place on March 28th, and they largely downplayed the gravity of the situation.
Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, William Scranton III, said around 11 a.m. that the situation was “under control” and that there appeared to be “no danger to public health or safety.” Engineers were venting radioactive steam into the air as he spoke. A Met-Ed official named John Herbein reassured the public about two hours later, saying the “plant is in safe condition.”
Even after a “uncontrolled” burst of radioactive gas was released at around 7 a.m. on March 30, government officials resisted issuing an evacuation order. “There is no need to evacuate,” said a press secretary for Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh at 10:35 a.m.
Mr Thornburgh himself advised pregnant women and young children to leave the area two hours later, closing 23 schools but not ordering a full evacuation. Many residents made the decision to leave on their own.
What changed as a result of the Three Mile Island disaster?
Although the meltdown at Three Mile Island did not result in any deaths, it did result in a number of changes in how the United States approaches nuclear power management. Some of the changes, according to the United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission, included “Upgrading and strengthening of plant design and equipment requirements,” “revamping operator training and staffing requirements,” “enhancing emergency preparedness,” and “expanding performance‑oriented as well as safety‑oriented inspections,”