Few people know that sitting across from the reactor that suffered a partial meltdown on Three Mile Island in 1979 - is another unit that still remains one of the region's largest power sources. In fact, the second unit has provided power for 45 years without incident. Now, according to Bloomberg, that unit is finally slated to shut down.
Plant owner Exelon says that it will shutter the entire Three Mile Island facility 15 years before its license expires. While the first reactor was brought down by human error, the second is being brought down by the economics of the utility industry.
The original meltdown that occurred in 1979 was a result of steam generators that were unable to draw heat out of a reactor and a stuck valve that let coolant escape from the reactor core.
The unit that melted down originally has stood dormant and quiet since the incident.
Compared to Chernobyl, which resulted in 4,000 deaths, Three Mile Island is considered minor. It was determined that about 2 million people in the surrounding area "were exposed to less radiation than they would have received from a chest X-ray."
But naturally, the immediate reaction to the event was fear and confusion. Schools closed, people stayed indoors and officials told children and pregnant women to evacuate the area. Public support for nuclear power predictably waned after the incident.
The U.S. is now the world's largest producer of natural gas, thanks to the "shale revolution". This has caused a glut of the fossil fuel, dragging down its price and making it the largest source of the country's electricity. Wind and solar have also been contributing to the nation's energy glut. As a result, seven U.S. nuclear plants have shut down since 2013, with additional plants slated to close, despite states like New York and Pennsylvania offering subsidies for nuclear power.
Hollywood is also taking some of the blame, as there continues to be renewed interest in the Chernobyl story, spawning an HBO series that detailed the 1986 explosion at the plant. The series was criticized as playing it fast and loose with some technical details, but more importantly was praised for enlightening people about the dangers of radiation poisoning and showing the impact of the disaster.
Nuclear remains at the middle of debate in the U.S., with President Trump taking steps to support unprofitable nuclear and coal plants, citing national securities issues. Federal energy regulators have rejected some of his efforts. Also predictably, environmental groups are divided on the issue: some have expressed concerns about treatment of nuclear waste and the potential for future mishaps, while others note that nuclear is much cleaner than burning fossil fuels.
Regardless of its shut down, Three Mile Island is likely to remain a crucial talking point in an ongoing debate that won't subside anytime soon.