Three Mile Island: The real-life meltdown behind the Netflix show

Forty-three years after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, a new generation of Americans can meet him on Netflix.

The new documentary series of the streaming service, Fusion: Three Mile Islandpremiered May 4 and uses a combination of historical footage and re-enactments to tell the story of the worst nuclear accident in US history.

But what was the real Three Mile Island, and why do Americans keep talking about it? Even four decades later, knowing the full story is not easy. Memories of the event have become hazy, and official reports at the time were incomplete and sometimes misleading. Here’s a look at what we know.

The fall

The Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station was a nuclear power plant, now closed, in Londonderry Township, Pennsylvania. It had two reactors: TMI-1 and TMI-2.

TMI-2 is where things went wrong. At approximately 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, the reactor’s coolant water pumps began to fail, causing it to overheat. Unbeknownst to the operators, a relief valve was left open, allowing valuable cooling water to seep in, even when the chamber appeared to be full. Confused, the operators turned off the pumps, causing the reactor to overheat even more.

Radiation levels at TMI-2, and eventually throughout the Three Mile Island facility, began to skyrocket. Fearing an explosion, engineers began releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere, potentially exposing the community to harmful radiation, something they would do several more times over the next two days.

Eventually, the company that operates the reactor, Metropolitan Edison (Met-Ed), shut down TMI-2. Years later, when scientists were able to fully assess the damage, they found that half of the reactor core had melted.

The confusion

According to a timeline compiled by Patriot-News, the first news conferences about the incident occurred on the morning of March 28 and largely downplayed the seriousness of what was happening.

Around 11 a.m., Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor William Scranton III said the situation was “under control” and there appeared to be “no danger to public health or safety.” As he spoke, the engineers blew radioactive steam into the air.

About two hours later, a Met-Ed official named John Herbein also reassured the public, saying “the plant is in a safe condition.”

Government officials resisted issuing an evacuation order, even after an “uncontrolled” burst of radioactive gas was released around 7 a.m. on March 30. At 10:35 a.m., a press secretary for Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh said “there was no need to evacuate.”

About two hours later, Thornburgh himself advised pregnant women and young children to leave the area and closed 23 schools, but did not order a full evacuation. Many residents decided to leave the city on their own.

The legacy

The crisis finally ended on April 2, when the TMI-2 reactor began to cool down. In the immediate aftermath, the disaster caused no known injuries or illnesses, and years later, most studies found that long-term health impacts were negligible (although some experts disagree).

But the accident certainly had an emotional impact. Fear of nuclear disasters and mistrust of government statements about them poisoned public opinion about nuclear power for decades. That fear was compounded by the Chernobyl disasters in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, which halted the growth of the industry in the US.

In 2019, the TMI-1 reactor was shut down due to financial losses, shutting down what was left of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. Today, the public is only reminded of the disaster through the plant’s creepy disused cooling towers and the Netflix show.

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