Lindsay Mangum, NPR
There are two nuclear reactors at Three Mile Island. The 1979 accident involved Unit 2, the two towers visible at the bottom. The upper two towers — Unit 1 — still operate today.Click to see detail.
Joel Rose, NPR
White water vapor pours out of the cooling towers for Unit 1, the working reactor at Three Mile Island. Unit 2 has been dormant since the 1979 accident.
White water vapor pours out of the cooling towers for Unit 1, the working reactor at Three Mile Island. Unit 2 has been dormant since the 1979 accident. Joel Rose, NPR
For nearly 30 years, Three Mile Island has been synonymous with the 1979 accident that caused the partial meltdown of one of its reactors.
As a result of the accident, 140,000 people voluntarily evacuated the area around the plant in central Pennsylvania, amid fears that its reactor had released radioactivity into the environment.
Today, there is plenty of white water vapor pouring out of the cooling towers for Unit 1, the working reactor. Unit 2 has been dormant since the 1979 accident.
Two months ago, the company that owns the working reactor applied for a license extension that would keep the plant running in the Susquehanna Valley until 2034.
Lessons from Three Mile Island
The 1979 accident brought about changes to nuclear power plants that some say make them safer.
"If you look at what's happened in our industry in the last five years, there's been a renaissance. The plants are operating at high safety levels," says Ralph DeSantis, communications manager for Three Mile Island.
For example, DeSantis notes that control room operators are trained on a simulator that is an exact replica of the real thing. DeSantis says better training is just one of the lessons the nuclear industry learned from the accident at Unit 2.
There hasn't been a nuclear plant built in this country since the Three Mile Island accident, although that may be about to change, as power companies make plans to build more than two dozen plants.
'The People Down There Know What They're Doing'
For a while, most people near Three Mile Island expected the plant would close in 2014, when its original license expires. But the exploding cost of energy changed the equation. Exelon, the plant's owner, is talking about investing hundreds of millions of dollars to keep it running for another 20 years.
You might expect opposition from the towns around the plant, but that's not exactly the case.
Middletown Mayor Robert Reid still keeps a working Geiger counter in his office, a few miles upstream from the plant. The Geiger counter is just about the only sign that he doesn't trust the plant.
"We just want to be ready in case anything happens. I'm sure nothing will. But we just want to be ready," Reid says. "The operation of the plant is 1,000 times better than what it was. Knowing what it was like in 1979, we can be thankful that the people down there know what they're doing."
Just a few years after the accident, public opinion was overwhelmingly against allowing the plant to operate. Now, opinions are more mixed.
At Kuppy's Diner, a few miles from the plant, cook Don Doremus thinks nuclear power is going to be around for a while. During the accident, Kuppy's stayed open to serve the workers at the plant.
"This country needs to find an alternative source of power. And as long as it's controlled correctly, I don't see a problem with it," Doremus says.
But Doremus doesn't speak for everyone in the diner.
Eric Epstein is the chairman of TMI Alert, a nonprofit group that monitors Three Mile Island and other nuclear plants.
"When they say [they have] the best safety record, it's compared to what?" Epstein says. "Yeah, they didn't melt the core. That's like telling a survivor of Dresden, 'Not so bad, it could have been Hiroshima.'"
Members of the watchdog group would love to see Three Mile Island shuttered once and for all. But they're focused instead on trying to get other concessions from its operator, because they know the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will probably approve the license extension.
And Epstein, like many here, seems resigned to living with the plant for another 20 years.