RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

The people who run Three Mile Island want to keep it going for another generation. This is the nuclear plant that became famous in 1979. Twenty-nine years ago today, Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor Bill Scranton spoke to reporters.

(Soundbite of audio)

Mr. BILL SCRANTON (Former Lieutenant Governor, Pennsylvania): There has been a release of radioactivity into the environment. The company has informed us that from about 11:00 a.m. to 1:30 p.m., Three Mile Island discharged into the air steam that contained detectable amounts of radiation.

INSKEEP: Days after that statement, 140,000 people evacuated the area around the plant in central Pennsylvania. Yet the partial meltdown of the plant's Unit 2 reactor did not affect the other one, and that reactor is still operating.

This year the company that owns Unit 1 at Three Mile Island applied for a license extension through the year 2034. Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE: I'm standing on Three Mile Island in the middle of the Susquehanna River, and I'm looking at the cooling towers for Unit 2. Those, of course, are dormant. They haven't been used in close to 30 years. I'm also standing, though, next to the cooling towers for Unit 1. And there's plenty of white water vapor pouring out of the tops of these cooling towers, and this plant is still very much in business.

Mr. RALPH DeSANTIS (Communications Manager, Three Mile Island): This is the reactor building right here. Between us and the reactor is about 10 to 12 feet of concrete, lead and steel.

ROSE: Ralph DeSantis is the communications manager for Three Mile Island. He's leading me on a tour of Unit 1, past hundreds of valves, pipes and meters, past the turbines and generator…

(Soundbite of power plant)

ROSE: …through layer after layer of security and up to the control room.

Mr. DeSANTIS: This may look familiar. You can see the control room here and the make-up of the crew and…

ROSE: DeSantis is eager to point out that the real control room looks exactly like the simulated one across the street, where the plant trains its operators. He says better training is just one of the lessons the nuclear industry learned from the accident at Unit 2.

Mr. DeSANTIS: If you look at what's happened in our industry over the last five years, you see a renaissance where the plants are operating at very high safety levels.

ROSE: There hasn't been a nuclear plant built in this country since the accident at Three Mile Island, although that may be about to change.

For a while, most people here expected this plant to close in 2014, when its original license expires. But the exploding cost of energy changed the equation. Now the plant's owner, Exelon, 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 what I found.

Mayor ROBERT REID (Middletown, Pennsylvania): We just want to be ready in case anything happens. I'm quite sure nothing else will happen, but we just want to be ready.

ROSE: Robert Reid still keeps a working Geiger counter in his office, a few miles upstream from the plant. Reid is the long-time mayor of Middletown, Pennsylvania and the Geiger counter is just about the only sign that he doesn't trust the plant.

Mayor REID: The operation of the plant is 1,000 times better than what it was. Knowing what it was like back in 1979, we can be thankful that the people down there now know what they're doing.

ROSE: Just a few years after the accident, public opinion was overwhelmingly against allowing the plant to operate. Now opinions are more mixed.

Kuppy's Diner is also just a few miles from the plant. During the accident, Kuppy's stayed open to serve the workers there. Today, Don Doremus is working the grill. He thinks nuclear power is going to be around for a while.

Mr. DON DOREMUS (Kuppy's Diner, Pennsylvania): 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.

ROSE: Do you feel safe?

Mr. DOREMUS: Eh, for the most part.

ROSE: 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.

Mr. ERIC EPSTEIN (TMI Alert): When they say they have the best safety record, as compared to what? Yeah, they didn't melt the core. OK. That's like telling a survivor of Dresden, hey, not so bad, it could have been Hiroshima.

ROSE: 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 Eric Epstein, like many here, seems resigned to living with the plant for another 20 years.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

INSKEEP: If you were alive in 1979, these images are in your head and you can explore images from the Three Mile Island accident at npr.org.

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