Is Three Mile Island Still Radioactive and Is It Operating Today?

Meltdown: Three Mile Island is the new documentary series on Netflix about the worst commercial nuclear accident on U.S. soil. Known as the Three Mile Island Accident, on March 28, 1979, there was a partial meltdown of Unit 2 (TMI-2) reactor at Three Mile Island Nuclear Station in Pennsylvania.

The accident was caused by a series of mechanical failures, which were exacerbated by the failure of plant operators to recognize the severity of the situation—a loss-of-coolant accident (LOCA)—resulting in a release of radioactivity.

Meltdown: Three Mile Island takes a deep look at the events, controversies, and long-lasting effects of the Three Mile Island accident in Pennsylvania. Is Three Mile Island still radioactive, and is it operating today?

Newsweek has everything you need to know.

"Meltdown: Three Mile Island" is streaming on Netflix now. The Three Mile Island plan and people protesting its reopening are shown above.

Is Three Mile Island Still Radioactive?

Yes, 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). Although, as seen in Meltdown: Three Mile Island, this has been disputed by local civilians and former employees who worked at the plant who speak of adverse health effects caused by the accident to this day.

Thankfully, there were no deaths or injuries at the time of the incident.

Aaron Datesman, a former Department of Energy scientist and NASA engineer, told Newsweek when asked if Three Mile Island is still radioactive from the 1979 accident today, "mostly no, but also a little bit yes."

Whether it is radioactive in general today, Datesman said: "Very much so. 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 explained: "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," Datesman 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."

Datesman confirmed that spent fuel from TMI-1 is "stored in a spent fuel pool" on Three Mile Island today.

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 of radioactive noble gases and 15 curies of radioiodines were released.

three mile island netflix
Shown above is a reenactment of the Three Mile Island Control room at the time of the accident in Netflix's "Meltdown: Three Mile Island." The plant will be officially decommissioned in 2079, according to the NRC. Netflix

Rogovin said that the release of noble gases and radioiodines resulted in an average dose of 1.4mrem 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."

As seen in Meltdown: Three Mile Island on Netflix, the plant's parent company Metropolitan Edison, like the USSR in Chernobyl nine years later, attempted to downplay the severity of the accident at first. Metropolitan Edison also claimed there had been no radiation detected and released from the site, but that was not the whole truth.

Despite its radioactive nature, 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 "in the months following the accident, although questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation on human, animal, and plant life in the TMI area, none could be directly correlated to the accident."

The report continued: "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."

In 2009, TMI-1 at Three Mile Island experienced a small radioactive leak while workers were cutting pipes. At the time, 20 employees were treated for mild radiation exposure but no radiation was believed to have escaped and therefore did not put the public at risk, CNN reported.

At the time, TMI-1's owner, Exelon Corporation, said in a statement: "A monitor at the temporary opening cut into the containment building wall to allow the new steam generators to be moved inside showed a slight increase in a reading and then returned to normal."

Is Three Mile Island Still Operating Today?

No, Three Mile Island is not still operating today.

The TMI-2 reactor was permanently shut down after the accident, with the reactor's coolant system drained, the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated, and 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. Today, 99 percent of TMI-2's fuel has been removed.

The official clean-up of Three Mile Island concluded in December 1993, 14 years after the accident occurred, costing $1 billion.

TMI-1, which was not involved in the 1979 accident, remained operating until September 20, 2019. While TMI-1 did have its license temporarily suspended following the accident, it resumed operations in 1985.

The reopening of TMI-1 was controversial as the citizens of the three surrounding counties voted overwhelmingly to cease the operation of TMI-1 in 1982. However, they were overruled in 1985 following a 4–1 vote by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, The Washington Post reported at the time.

Though in 2009 the NRC gave a license extension to allow TMI-1 to continue to operate until 2034, Exelon announced Three Mile Island would close in 2019 as a result of the growth of cheap natural gas and renewable energy.

Today, the process of decommissioning Three Mile Island is still underway and according to the NRC, will be finished in 2079. At the moment, spent fuel is being moved to dry storage, which is expected to be completed by summer 2022.

Meltdown: Three Mile Island is streaming now on Netflix now.