This Week in History

This Week in History

Nuclear Reactor Melts Down In The USA

28 March 1979

Deadly radiation escapes from a US nuclear power plant, endangering nearly 2,000,000 people.

In 1979, a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, USA, suffered a partial meltdown. Gamma radiation was emitted and spread throughout the area, potentially affecting up to 2,000,000 people. Many who were exposed later suffered various forms of cancer, and many tried to claim personal injury against the owner of the plant, Metropolitan Edison Company. The company was found not liable in all cases.

nuclear reactor (noun): a device used to cause and control nuclear reactions
melt down (verb): overheat and cause the release of harmful radiation
radiation (noun): energy travelling through space as rays or waves
endanger (verb): bring someone or something closer to trouble or risk
expose (verb): leave open to harm
liable (adjective ): responsible for damage

Transcript: "Could I have your attention please! There has been a state of emergency declared on Three Mile Island." That frightening warning greeted many who lived around the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in the days after the March 28th accident. Thousands left the area to get away from what they couldn't see, touch or smell - radiation that could have been released from the plant. Then Governor Dick Thornburgh contemplated an evacuation from the moment he heard about the incident. Two days later he told pregnant women and young children to leave. To this day there's debate about whether anyone's health was affected by the TMI accident. What we do know now is [that] a portion of the TMI unit 2 reactor core melted. At the time we heard often that a complete core meltdown would have made this area uninhabitable for decades. It all was set off by an emergency water release valve that opened, failed to close and wasn't identified or corrected by operators. The nuclear fuel overheated and ruptured metal tubes that led to the partial meltdown. Radiation was released but the nuclear regulatory commission said it wasn't enough to be dangerous. It took years and cost a billion dollars to clean up TMI 2. According to the NRC the reactor is permanently shut down and defueled, radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated, and some radioactive waste, fuel and debris shipped off-site to be stored. The NRC indicates that the TMI accident resulted in better operator training, upgraded plant designs and equipment requirements, and enhanced emergency preparedness. It's pointed out that if a similar incident occurred at TMI today 96 sirens would wail throughout the area to warn residents - the legacy of Three Mile Island. For Smart Talk, I'm Scott LaMar

Test your understanding:

The partial meltdown of a reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant led to

  1. the emission of Gamma radiation
  2. the evacuation of 2,000,000 people
  3. the closing of the Metropolitan Edison Company

Many people who developed cancer after being exposed to the radiation sued Metropolitan Edison Company for damages, and compensation was paid

  1. in all cases
  2. in a few of the cases
  3. in none of the cases

Radiation that escapes from a nuclear power plant when a reactor overheats and melts down

  1. kills everyone who's exposed to it
  2. only affects people who are old or weak
  3. can seriously harm plants and animals, including human beings

Teacher's Notes - how to use This Week in History in your classes

Contributor: Matt Errey. Matt is the author of several books including 1000 Phrasal Verbs in Context and Common English Idioms for learners, and Matt's ESL Games and Quizzes for teachers. He is also creator of WORD UP, the world's #1 EFL board game.