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Reflections On Three Mile Island On The 40th Anniversary Of The Accident

Tom Pelton

It was a warm spring evening as I set off in a kayak from a boat ramp in Middletown, Pennsylvania, about an hour north of Baltimore, into the still waters of Swatara Creek.

A family of ducks, with a dozen ducklings, paddled in the river.  A pair of kayakers, father and son, came in off the waterway, dragging their boats up and laughing with each other. Children in their bathing suits splashed in the shallows at the boat launch.

As the sun set, illuminating  the clouds, I passed around a bend and, beyond the trees, saw the four enormous cooling towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant.

It was 40 years ago, in 1979, that a partial meltdown at Three Mile Island triggered the evacuation or flight more 140,000 people from south central Pennsylvania. The incident – and the authorities’ bungled response to it -- generated so much fear that the nuclear industry never recovered in the U.S.

In the five years after Three Mile Island, power companies cancelled 51 nuclear power plant construction projects. No new nuclear plants have been started in the U.S. since.

But despite the near death of the nuclear industry, no people died during the failure of the cooling system at the reactor, and the environmental impact outside of the plant was minimal. 

Today, kayaking in the shadow of the plant’s looming towers is a strange experience.  Despite the industrial appearance of the place, Lake Frederick beside the plant remains highly popular for fishermen, boaters, and many local working-class people for whom this is their main spot to enjoy the summer.

There are several islands next to Three Mile Island, wooded, steep banked, highly eroded, and overgrown. Anglers and hunters love these islands and they have built makeshift shacks all over them. They rise early in the morning here to fish in the lake.

Large numbers of turtles and birds also thrive on the islands in the shadow of the cooling towers. As I kayaked near a line of painted turtles on a gnarled log, they slipped off into the water.  It’s an amazing amount of wildlife for what looks like a hellscape. 

My journey past the power plant was a reminder that often the environmental stories that are the most frightening to us – and that get the most attention from the news media – are not those that those are the most dangerous to public health or our natural world. 

Four decades after Three Mile Island, the largest environmental danger facing us turns out not to be nuclear energy, but climate change – a problem driven by the greenhouse gas pollution produced by non-nuclear energy sources. Generation from nuclear power releases today creates 20 percent of America’s electricity with no carbon dioxide emissions.

Despite this climate-friendly footprint, nuclear power is on its way out – in part because of the far worse disasters at Chernobyl and Fukushima that followed Three Mile Island. But the real reason has little to do with the environment, and everything to do with economics.

The Exelon company, which owns Three Mile Island’s remaining active reactor, recently announced that it will be closing the plant in September. Technological innovation-- hydraulic fracturing -- has made natural gas so much cheaper than mining and burning uranium that nuclear plants cannot compete. Exelon had sought a $500 million bailout from Pennsylvania taxpayers to keep Three Mile Island running, but lawmakers rejected it after the natural gas industry lobbied against it.

It’s ironic that, in the end, Three Mile Island was not shut down by environmentalists or even public health advocates — but by capitalists. 

Tom Pelton, a national award-winning environmental journalist, has hosted "The Environment in Focus" since 2007. He also works as director of communications for the Environmental Integrity Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to holding polluters and governments accountable to protect public health. From 1997 until 2008, he was a journalist for The Baltimore Sun, where he was twice named one of the best environmental reporters in America by the Society of Environmental Journalists.