DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Forty years ago today, the United States experienced the worst nuclear accident in its history.
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MIKE PINTEK: Met-Ed company officials had to shut down their Three Mile Island nuclear power station unit No. 2 this morning after an accident occurred within the plant's turbine system.
GREENE: The partial meltdown at the plant near Harrisburg, Pa., in 1979 sparked a major anti-nuclear backlash. The entire plant is finally set to close this fall, but environmentalists are actually now making a push to keep it and other nuclear power plants open.
Here's Marie Cusick from member station WITF.
MARIE CUSICK, BYLINE: The Three Mile Island accident sparked confusion and fear, partly because public officials had such a hard time explaining what was happening. Two days after the meltdown, even the governor, Dick Thornburgh, struggled to answer basic questions.
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DICK THORNBURGH: It is a very difficult thing to pin these facts down so that we can give you some kind of bundle of reliable information.
CUSICK: The accident happened on a Wednesday. And by the end of the weekend, an estimated 80,000 people had fled the area. Joyce Corradi was a young mother of four living a few miles from the plant. She says her most vivid memory is pulling out of her driveway wondering if her life would ever be the same.
JOYCE CORRADI: I took our marriage certificate, and I took our children's birth certificates. I was concerned that if in the confusion things really got bad that I could prove those were my children and that the - we could at least be together.
CUSICK: Although a small amount of radiation was released, in the end, it wasn't a disaster. In the 1980s, Three Mile Island reopened - minus the one damage reactor. Although some of her friends moved away, Corradi still lives in the same house but feels the plant always looming in the background.
CORRADI: It's kind of like living with a giant in your neighborhood. You know it's there. You know it could cause you problems, but you live in an uneasy compromise.
CUSICK: That compromise is being tested as the nuclear industry faces new challenges, like competition from cheaper natural gas and renewables. Exelon, which owns the plant's still-functional unit 1 reactor, says Three Mile Island has been losing money for years. The company plans to close the plant this fall. But Exelon's David Fein says losing so much carbon-free electricity would be a major blow to efforts to address climate change.
DAVID FEIN: It's something that, if we hope to do anything about it, then we have to preserve all the nation's nuclear stations.
CUSICK: Nuclear power plants provide about 20 percent of the nation's electricity. But across the country, nearly a third of existing nuclear plants are either unprofitable or scheduled to close. Mark Szybist with the Natural Resources Defense Council says without new policies, that could mean more greenhouse gas emissions.
MARK SZYBIST: We're at a point where, if nuclear retires immediately, we would probably replace it with natural gas generation because we haven't sufficiently planned to replace it with something cleaner.
CUSICK: All this has led to a big push to keep nuclear plants online. Other states, including New York, Illinois, New Jersey and Connecticut, have recently given billions of dollars in subsidies to keep their nuclear plants open. Christina Simeone with the University of Pennsylvania's Kleinman Center for Energy Policy thinks governments should step in.
CHRISTINA SIMEONE: Once you close a nuclear plant, that's a permanent result. We're going to lose a significant amount of zero-carbon power.
CUSICK: In Pennsylvania, Republican State Representative Thomas Mehaffie has introduced a bill to try to prevent Three Mile Island and another nuclear plant from retiring early.
TOM MEHAFFIE: If we lose one or more of these plants, we might as well just forget about all the time and money we've invested into wind and solar.
CUSICK: But the bill faces major opposition from groups like the growing natural gas industry, which stands to gain if nuclear plants close, and the AARP, which says the move would hurt ratepayers. As someone who lived through the Three Mile Island accident, Joyce Corradi would be happier to see the plant close. But because the U.S. still has no real plan to deal with its radioactive nuclear waste, it will be stored at the plant, sitting in her town indefinitely.
CORRADI: I find that, really, 40 years down the road, I'm still sitting on top of a plant that has all the waste, a plant that cannot sell its electricity. And there's still no real answers.
CUSICK: Even today, she avoids driving by the plant's large, gray cooling towers.
For NPR News, I'm Marie Cusick in Harrisburg.
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