Do People Still Work at and Live Near Three Mile Island?

Meltdown: Three Mile Island is the spine-tingling new documentary series on Netflix about the worst nuclear accident on U.S. soil. On March 28, 1979, there was a partial meltdown of the Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor at the plant, caused by a series of mechanical failures.

Unfortunately, plant operators failed to react quickly enough or find out what the issue was, leading to a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA), resulting in a release of radioactivity.

The four-part series explores the accident itself, the aftermath, the alleged cover-up, and the wider effects it had on the population living in the surrounding area.

So, 43 years later, do people still work and live near Three Mile Island? Newsweek has everything you need to know.

Do People Still Work at Three Mile Island?

Yes, people do still work at Three Mile Island, but not in the same way as they did in the 1970s.

Instead, two separate companies are working to decommission Three Mile Island, meaning the complete shutdown and dismantlement of its components, systems, and buildings which will take decades to complete.

FirstEnergy, who owned TMI-2, sold it to Energy Solutions in December 2020 to help with the decommissioning process, while Constellation Energy continues to own TMI-1.

According to the NRC, the overall process of decommissioning will not be complete until 2079. The removal of spent fuel is currently being removed to dry storage, which is expected to complete by the summer of 2022.

According to Nuclear Engineering International Magazine, the two towers of TMI-1 and TMI-2 are set to come down in 2022.

The TMI-2 reactor was permanently shut down after the 1979 accident, with the reactor's coolant system drained, the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated, and the radioactive waste removed to an "appropriate disposal area," according to the NRC. All remaining reactor fuel and debris were shipped to the Department of Energy's Idaho National Laboratory.

The unit was placed into long-term monitored storage in 1993, awaiting decommissioning at the same time as TMI-1.

TMI-1 was not involved in the 1979 accident but did have its license temporarily suspended. It resumed operations from 1985 through to September 20, 2019, when the unit officially shut down.

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The Three Mile Island Nuclear Station. Netflix

According to the U.S. Office of Nuclear Energy, TMI-1 at its peak was generating more than 800 megawatts of carbon-free electricity and employed 675 people.

If it had not been for the rising pressure of the cheap natural gas and renewable energy sector and nuclear power, TMI-1 could have remained in operation until 2034 after the NRC granted an extension to keep the unit open.

Aaron Datesman, a former Department of Energy scientist and NASA engineer, told Newsweek there is "very much" a risk of radiation exposure to the workers at Three Mile Island and those living close by.

"TMI-1 operated until 2019 (it was Unit 2 that melted down), so there is a huge inventory of radioactive material contained in a spent fuel pool at that site," he said. "Regarding the spent fuel pool, the fuel in a nuclear reactor is not like the gasoline in an automobile, it's not used up until the tank is empty. The fuel rods are used to generate electricity for a period of months and then replaced."

"The spent fuel rods, however, are intensely radioactive: a human being standing close to an unshielded hot fuel rod would receive a lethal dose of radiation in just minutes," he continued. "The spent fuel rods must be stored in a pool of water for a long time while the radioactivity slowly decays, over a period of years to decades."

"The conclusion of my work is that protracted exposure to low-level radiation is far more hazardous than authorities assert," Datesman added. "Low-level exposures will result from the decommissioning of TMI-1 and the operation of the spent fuel pool."

Do People Still Live Near Three Mile Island?

Yes, people do still live near Three Mile Island, located in Londonderry Township, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania.

Middletown, Pennsylvania was the area closest to Three Mile Island, located just three miles away. At the time of the accident, Governor Richard "Dick" Thornburgh ordered the evacuation of pregnant women and preschool children from the area and Within days, 140,000 people had left the area.

According to the U.S Census of 2020, 9,533 people live in Middletown, Pennsylvania today.

three mile island today
Paula Kinney in Meltdown: Three Mile Island. Kinney discussed in the documentary how her family left their town behind in the wake of the accident. Netflix

As seen in Meltdown: Three Mile Island, others living several miles from Three Mile Island also evacuated. Some returned, but many did not.

The after-effects of the accident and the risk to the public's health are still being debated today.

In Meltdown: Three Mile Island, residents in Middletown recall suffering from lacerations, sickness, diarrhea, and a metal taste in their mouths as a result of radiation sickness.

Some also speak of adverse health effects caused by the accident to this day.
Technically Three Mile Island is still radioactive today but its levels of radiation are not believed to be dangerous to humans or nature, according to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).

Mitchell Rogovin of the NRC's Special Inquiry Group in his January 1980 report Three Mile Island: a report to the commissioners and to the public. Volume I explained during the accident that 2.5 million curies (a unit used to measure the intensity of radioactivity) of radioactive noble gases and 15 curies of radioiodines were released.

Rogovin said that the release of noble gases and radioiodines resulted in an average dose of 1.4 millirems across two people living around the site area, which is less than 1 percent of the annual dose from "natural background radiation and medical practice."

The NRC stated in 2018 after numerous investigations alongside the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (now Health and Human Services), the Department of Energy, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and several other independent studies that, "Thousands of environmental samples of air, water, milk, vegetation, soil, and foodstuffs were collected by various government agencies monitoring the area.

"Very low levels of radionuclides could be attributed to releases from the accident. Comprehensive investigations and assessments by several well-respected organizations, such as Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh, have concluded that in spite of serious damage to the reactor, the actual release had negligible effects on the physical health of individuals or the environment."

The official clean-up of Three Mile Island concluded in December 1993, 14 years after the accident occurred, costing $1 billion. It is considered one of the worst nuclear disasters the world has seen, along with the 1986 Chernobyl disaster and the 2011 Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Meltdown: Three Mile Island is streaming on Netflix now.