At around four o'clock in the morning of March 28, 1979, Reactor 2 at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, close to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, had a serious problem. At that early morning hour its non-nuclear cooling system broke down and failed.
When the system failed cooling water began to drain from the reactor. As a result the reactor core experienced a partial melt down.
After that, one problem seemed to lead to another. A valve stuck and the operators made a number of errors. In addition there were design errors and faulty sensors.
All of these things contributed to the release of radiation into the air. However, it was about one thousandth the amount of radiation that was released during the explosion at Chernobyl.
Luckily the containment structure that surrounded the reactor held. If it didn't, approximately 18 billion curies of radiation could have been released into the atmosphere.
Some nuclear power advocates soon started to say that because the containment structure held it meant that there couldn't be any serious nuclear accidents in the United States. However, a lot of experts said that the only thing that prevented the accident from being any worse was due to one thing and one thing only. And that one thing was pure luck.
According to the experts the reactor core was extremely close to becoming hot enough to melt down completely. And the only reason that total melt down was prevented was that safety measures were implemented immediately.
Nobody is really sure exactly how much radiation was released as a result of this nuclear accident. There are estimates that approximately 2 ½ million curries of radiation escaped from the reactor. As a safety precaution, several days later, all of the children along with all of the pregnant women within an 8 kilometer radius of Three Mile Island were evacuated.
Subsequent to the disaster some of the elderly folks who lived in the area died prematurely and local residents developed different types of cancer. In addition, nearby dairy farms reported that a lot of their animals had died as a consequence of the accident.
In August 1979 the reactor cleanup began. By December 1993 - the time the cleanup had officially ended - the cost amounted to approximately $975 million.
Between 1985 and 1990 close to 100 tons of radioactive fuel were removed from Three Mile Island.
Although Reactor 2 was only on line for 3 months it was not safe to walk in and its reactor vessel was ruined. So it was closed permanently.
In 1985 Reactor 1 was restarted. However, a number of plans for building the same kind of reactors were later dismissed.
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