What Happened at Three Mile Island? 40 Years Later, Effects of Nuclear Meltdown Are Still Debated

It's been 40 years since the worst nuclear disaster the U.S. has seen.

What happened at Three Mile Island?

The Three Mile Island generating station is a nuclear power plant that sits on the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania. In the early morning of March 28, 1979, a series of mechanical and human failures resulted in a loss of coolant water in one of the plant's two reactors. It became overheated and started to melt, releasing radioactive gas into the air.

It was, and still is, the worst nuclear disaster the U.S. has seen.

As news emerged of what had happened, people began to panic. It didn't help that a movie called “The China Syndrome” was playing in theaters that spring. The Hollywood techno-thriller, which starred Jane Fonda and Michael Douglas and Jack Lemmon, told the story of a perilous situation at a nuclear power plant. It was a worst-case scenario of life imitating art.

Two days after the initial accident, Pennsylvania's then-governor, Dick Thornburgh, announced that pregnant women and preschool age children should leave the 5-mile radius around the plant. 

Adding to the fear and paranoia, there was initially little information about what had actually happened. An engineer with scant public relations experience was handling communications for the plant. In one contentious press conference, he shouted, “I don’t know why we have to tell you people each and every thing that we do!”

Eventually the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, a federal agency, brought in a skilled communicator named Harold Denton to relay information to the press and public and the immediate panic began to subside.  

Families returned to the area. Cleanup of the damaged reactor began, and after a protracted legal battle, the plant restarted its undamaged reactor. Things sort of got back to normal.

But over the years, new fears began to emerge. Many locals think that the accident, and the subsequent radiation exposure, is to blame for their health problems.

Christine Layman, who run a Facebook group called Three Mile Island Survivors, offering a safe space to talk about what they claim happened to them. 

“A lot of them do believe that that accident had something to do with their illness," she told InsideEdition.com. 

Cultural historian Natasha Zaretsky, who wrote "Radiation Nation: Three Mile Island and the Political Transformation of the 1970s," told InsideEdition.com the persistent paranoia is understandable.

“I completely and totally understand why the people who lived near the plant did not necessarily believe the official story," she said. "Both the state and the federal government and the nuclear industry as a whole tried to reassure people who lived near the plant that they had never been exposed to dangerous levels of radiation during the accident, and that in fact there was nothing to fear.”   

She said a number of people who lived in the community “really rejected those reassurances.” They were convinced, she said, that “they had sustained radiological injury and had gotten sick because of radiation exposure.”

On the 40th anniversary of the accident, Three Mile Island stands at a crossroads. As they do every year, activists will gather at the gates of the plant on the morning of March 28, to mark the accident with a vigil. Their protests may outlast the plant itself, which is currently too expensive to maintain. Unless the state or federal government takes extraordinary measures, Three Mile Island may close in the coming months. 

The potential closure comes as some environmentalists now advocate for nuclear power as an energy source, since it is not a fossil fuel.

“One of the things that makes Three Mile Island really interesting at the moment is that we’re currently in the middle of a debate,” Zaretsky said, “There’s now mounting evidence that we need to transition away from fossil fuels in some way in the coming decades in order to avert the most catastrophic effects of runaway climate change."