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20 Years Later
A Nuclear Nightmare in Pennsylvania

Three Mile Island
An undamaged nuclear reactor at the plant is still in operation. (Corbis photo)
By Mark Stencel Staff
Saturday, March 27, 1999

Before the 1979 accident at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island, few had heard of the nuclear power plant on the Susquehanna River. But the crisis that began 20 years ago in the early morning of March 28 quickly turned the plant and its giant cooling towers into icons in the long national argument over the safety of nuclear energy.

Online Discussions
Governing in the Crisis: Transcript of discussion with former Pennsylvania governor Richard Thornburgh

Nuclear Power's Future: Transcript of discussion with Post energy reporter Martha Hamilton

Your Stories: What you remember about the accident

From The Post
For Sale: The purchase of Three Mile Island shows a power shift in the industry
The initial information from the accident in the Unit 2 reactor was sketchy and contradictory. The utility company that ran the plant said the situation was manageable. But officials from mayor's offices to the Oval Office worried about possible complications that would shower radioactivity on the small communities around Three Mile Island – or perhaps even farther. Government engineers feared that the reactor's nuclear fuel would melt out of its thick steel and cement encasement, or that a hydrogen gas bubble in the core would explode.

In Harrisburg, less than 10 miles away, the state's new governor struggled with conflicting advice on whether to begin an evacuation that might affect more than 600,000 people. In Washington, 100 miles south, federal regulators anxiously sought reliable information to guide local authorities and the president, former nuclear engineer Jimmy Carter.

In the two decades since Three Mile Island, the plant has become a rallying symbol for the anti-nuclear movement. But the nuclear power industry, which has not built a single new plant in the United States since 1979, says the accident showed that its safety systems worked, even in the most extreme circumstances.

Revelations during the decadelong cleanup of the crippled reactor showed that its core was more seriously damaged than originally suspected. But scientists still disagree on whether the radiation vented during the event was enough to affect the health of those who lived near the plant.

This special report includes a photo gallery and a 1979 Washington Post series on the accident's key events and key players, as well as subsequent Post stories and Web links on the accident's aftermath.

Join us for live discussions on the lessons and legacy of Three Mile Island with former Pennsylvania governor Richard Thornburgh and Washington Post energy reporter Martha M. Hamilton. Also, share your memories and reactions to the accident that dominated the nation's attention two decades ago.

Mark Stencel can be reached at

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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