Thirty-eight years ago today, on March 28, 1979, an accident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear generation facility on the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. The cause of the accident was extraordinarily complex, involving a dizzying array of technology at the plant’s control center, but suffice it to say that a stuck valve and a broken indicator light were at the heart of the incident. A partial meltdown of the plant’s reactor occurred, releasing some radioactive material into the coolant system. Exactly how much radiation–if any at all–found its way into the surrounding community has been a point of dispute for nearly 40 years. The one thing upon which most people agree is that Three Mile Island might have been a lot worse than it was, and the community could have suffered truly catastrophic consequences. The plant at which the accident occurred, part of a complex of nuclear reactors, was shut down, although other reactors at TMI continued operating. Nevertheless, the ripple effect of the accident in public consciousness, and environmental history, is hard to overestimate.

Three Mile Island, both the plant an the accident whose name has overshadowed it, were very much a product of their time. Nuclear power, channeled into electricity generation in the civilian sector, was an outgrowth of the military application of fission which arose from World War II, and the public fight over the safety or desirability of nuclear power generation was especially intense in the decades following the war. At times the U.S. government seemed somewhat desperate to demonstrate to the public that peaceful, non-military uses of nuclear technology existed: take, for instance, the failed 1962 attempt to show that nukes could play a role in large-scale mining and engineering operations. To be fair, on paper at least there were persuasive arguments for making nuclear generation a significant part of the U.S. energy infrastructure. At least by traditional standards, nuclear power is cleaner than fossil fuels, and other countries, like France–which invested heavily in nuclear power after World War II–seemed to be making it work. But nuclear power, at least in the United States, was a surprisingly hard sell to the public.

U.S. President Jimmy Carter tours the TMI control room in the wake of the 1979 accident. The incident was just one of Carter’s many woes involving energy during his troubled term. 

Why? In the 1960s and particularly the 1970s there was so much misinformation and misunderstanding of the risks of nuclear power that it was almost impossible for politicians, power companies or environmental activists to find any common ground on the issue. Stepping back from it, I think a case can be made that nuclear reactors had quantitatively fewer risks than traditional power generation methods, but those risks were qualitatively much different and individually the stakes were much higher. An exploding coal plant or oil refinery is, without doubt, an environmental disaster, but a burning oil refinery is not going to pump a lethal dose of radiation, isotopes with half-lives measured in decades, into a community’s air or water. Big-ticket accidents aside, the question of what to do with spent uranium control rods, also highly radioactive, was a large one. Nevertheless, power companies like Metropolitan Edison Company, which operated Three Mile Island in 1979, for the most part competently handled these risks, and political authorities went along. Between 1963 and 1979, with the exception of two years, more reactors were being built worldwide each year than the previous one. The gamble to sell nuclear power to the public seemed to be working.

Three Mile Island changed all that, at least in America. Although the accident did not cause a single fatality and even years later it remains unclear whether cancer or other health problems were linked to the incident, TMI definitely soured the American public on nuclear power. A wave of anti-nuclear protests and lawsuits stopped the U.S. nuclear power industry pretty much in its tracks. Nuke plants could theoretically still be built, but the licensing procedures and especially the costs increased so much after 1979 that putting a new nuclear plant online was simply not economically or politically feasible. One nuclear plant–one–has been licensed in the United States since TMI, and that was in 2012, but there are serious questions about whether that one will actually be built. As for the rest of the world, the horrific Chernobyl accident in 1986 chilled global demand for nuke power in much the same way TMI did in the U.S. Many nuclear plants are still operating today, but they don’t make ’em like they used to.

By complete chance, the Jane Fonda film The China Syndrome, a fictional story about a nuclear reactor accident, was released just two weeks before the 1979 TMI accident. Fonda soon became a visible opponent of nuclear power.

Is this a good thing, or a tragedy? Especially in the era of climate change, could nuclear power, if widely used, have provided a “clean” (or cleaner) bridge between fossil fuels and truly renewable energy sources? Are the oceans that are absorbing carbon emissions, the Great Barrier Reef that’s dying or the island nations that are about to go underwater paying the price for the high-profile activism of Jane Fonda and Gerry Brown lobbying against nuclear power after the 1979 accident? Honestly, I don’t think it’s that simple. Historically I’m not sure the TMI accident can really be said to have caused the effective demise of the U.S. industry, though it could be seen as a catalyst for forces already at work. In the 1970s the U.S. was reeling from the end of three decades of largely uninterrupted economic prosperity, a boom fueled in large part by cheap, dirty energy. The link between energy and economics was driven home in the 1970s by the Arab oil embargo of 1973-74. Jimmy Carter, U.S. President at the time of TMI, suffered his own oil shock later in 1979 as another embargo occurred in the wake of the Iranian revolution. Energy was a tricky political issue in the late 1970s. The accident in Pennsylvania couldn’t have come at a worse time.

Indeed, I wonder if the U.S. nuclear power industry was a necessary sacrificial lamb, a potential pillar of our energy regime that we could most afford to do without in order to assuage public fears. The real dangers of nuclear power, whatever they are (or are not), are almost irrelevant. It’s what the public perceives that drives policy, and money. The indelible nexus between civilian nuclear power and what I’ve described as “the nightmarish toy box” of nuclear weapons technology couldn’t be swept under the rug. The backlash against nuclear power after 1979 probably has less to do with rads and rods at Three Mile Island, and more to do with Hiroshima, Nagasaki and the Cold War. The moral and social baggage surrounding the atom, regardless of its objective safety or its economics, possibly doomed nuclear power in American consciousness. This could also explain why the history of nuclear power took a different trajectory in America than it did in other parts of the world, at least up until 1986. France did not nuke Hiroshima. We did. In a broad sense it’s kind of hard to get past that.

The community of Goldsboro, Pennsylvania carries on in the shadow of the TMI coolant towers. Photo taken in 1979.

Three Mile Island still provokes so many unanswered questions. Was it preventable? Is it responsible for health issues? How safe is nuclear power? Does it even matter anymore? As the world grapples with manmade global warming, it seems clear that the future of energy will be–indeed, must be–in renewable sources like solar, wind and water power. Regardless of what did or did not happen at TMI in 1979, nuclear power seems destined for the dustbin of history in the long run. What was billed as a bold new hope for the world’s energy future is already a relic of its past.

The header photo of the TMI towers is by Wikimedia Commons user Z22 and is used under Creative Commons 3.0 (Attribution) license. The other images are public domain. I am not the uploader of the YouTube clip embedded here.