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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Three Mile Island, 30 Years Ago

Air Date: Week of

Arjun Mahkijani, president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, looks back at the Three Mile Island nuclear meltdown. The accident turned the public against nuclear power and Wall Street was reluctant to invest money in new plants. He tells host Bruce Gellerman that financing nukes may still be a risky business.


GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts - this is Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman, in for Steve Curwood.

Today we note the anniversaries of two of the worst environmental disasters in US history. Coming up - lessons from the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska, two decades on. But first - it was 30 years ago, March 28, 1979, at precisely 4AM that alarms went off at Three Mile Island power plant in Pennsylvania – signaling the start of a nuclear nightmare. Roger Mattson was a Senior Engineer with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

MATTSON: We had a meltdown at Three Mile Island. Fifty percent of the core was destroyed, or molten and something on the order of twenty tons of uranium found its way by flowing in a molten state to the bottom head of the pressure vessel. That's a core melt down, no question about it.

GELLERMAN: This audio is from the documentary, "Meltdown at Three Mile Island”- The disaster put the kibosh on the US commercial nuclear power industry. Not a single atomic plant has been built since.

Arjun Makhijani is a nuclear engineer and president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research.

MAKHIJANI: Well it was a series of errors that compounded each other. There was some design problems, then there were human problems and then there were mechanical malfunctions. And at Three Mile Island, due to a malfunction on the turbine side of the plant, the electric generating system shut down. So in that case what happens in the reactor is there’s a relief valve that relieves the over pressure – just like your pressure cooker. You know, your pressure cooker has a little relief valve on the top, the steam escapes from there. And that valve opened at Three Mile Island. And then after it has relieved the pressure, it’s supposed to close and this mechanical valve was stuck open even though the power to the valve had turned off and it should have shut. So the operator thought it was closed, but all of this water was escaping from the reactor.

GELLERMAN: Yeah, and the problem was confounded by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and state officials in Pennsylvania, they just kind of like added to the confusion. Nobody really knew who was speaking to the public, and the public didn’t know what was going on, and the media was there.

MAKHIJANI: Yeah, typically the companies said no radiation was released and some other – I think the state authorities said that some radiation had been released. And the state authorities were right, some radiation had been released. And then they released more radiation deliberately when they vented the plant. And then the public got very upset. There was a lot of confusion over whether people should be evacuated. So, yes, there was a lot of confusion and from the operators in the control room to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission people were shown to be very ill prepared for this kind of event.

GELLERMAN: So, are we safer today with the nuclear plants that are now operating?

MAKHIJANI: I don’t know. There’s no clean answer to that. I think a lot of the problem lies in what is going on in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. For the first fifteen years after the accident, I think the Commission had lessons learned. It was awake. It asked the licensees to incorporate changes into their reactors even if they incurred some costs and so on. In recent years, there’s been a greater relaxation. There’s a lot of self-inspection going on. The licensees can make a lot of determinations that I don’t think they should make. We all, you know, we were not far from a catastrophe at a reactor in Toledo, near Toledo, the Davis-Besse Reactor, where the head, the lid of the reactor vessel had almost corroded all the way through. The NRC inspectors had seen pictures of the corrosion before. They had – there was actually a bucket brigade to carry away the deposited boric acid, and yet they did not order the shut down on the power plant. This was as recently as 2002. So I’m not comfortable today that the NRC is as vigilant as it should be, and these reactors have become cash cows for their operators. I certainly don’t mind people making profit, but I think the re-licensing process and the vigilance should certainly be much greater than it is today.

GELLERMAN: You know there’s a generation of people in the United State who don’t even know about Three Mile Island, let alone remember it. And many of them are familiar with, you know, nuclear power plants from Homer Simpson.


MAKHIJANI: Yes, that’s right. This is the most common way to find out about nuclear power these days.

GELLERMAN: He was an operator of a nuclear power plant.

MAKHIJANI: That’s right, yeah. And so we essentially know nuclear power through a cartoon character. You know, I think the debate about nuclear power is and should be very serious. The nuclear power industry claims that they’re going to solve the climate crisis. But they’re a mature industry. They’ve had government-supplied insurance for fifty years. They still get government-supplied insurance. They say they’re very safe, but they cannot buy commercial insurance for their operations. If they want to build nuclear power plants, they should go to Wall Street, raise the money, but Wall Street regarded nuclear power plants as being too risky even before this current crisis. The same Wall Street that was doing sub prime mortgages and thought they were okay, thought this was even more risky and didn’t want to finance them. We could build ten times as much renewable electricity in the next ten years as could be built in terms of new nuclear power plants, so if we are really serious about low carbon electricity, we would be doing renewable electricity.

GELLERMAN: Arjun Makhijani is the president of the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research. His most recent book is “Carbon Free and Nuclear Free: A Road Map for U.S. Energy Policy.”

Arjun Makhijani, thanks again.

MAKHIJANI: Thank you very much, Bruce.



Institute for Energy and Environmental Research


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