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1979 scare

Published March 31. 2014 05:00PM

Last Friday marked the 35th Anniversary of Three Mile Island accident, the civilian nuclear power plant near Harrisburg that suffered a partial meltdown of one reactor. Although it resulted in no deaths or injuries, TMI became one of the worst nuclear disasters in our country's history, forcing the evacuation of 140,000 people.

To mark last week's anniversary of the TMI accident, former Pennsylvania Gov. Dick Thornburgh and former federal nuclear engineer Harold Denton were among the speakers at a two-day event hosted by Penn State Harrisburg. Thornburgh had been Pennsylvania's governor for only 72 days when the TMI accident unfolded while Denton, who worked for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, was a calming voice amid all the chaos during the crisis.

Since it represents approximately 21 percent of the state's total electric generating capacity, Pennsylvania is a major player in the nuclear power industry. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 93,000 people live within 10 miles of the Susquehanna plant in Berwick, and 147,640 people are within 10 miles of the Three Mile Island plant.

The accident in 1979, which was caused by a combination of errors, resulted in major upgrades in training, oversight, safety procedures and emergency response. More federal requirements were added following the attacks on the U.S. by terrorists on Sept. 11, 2001.

This area has an important role in the event of a nuclear disaster at either the Susquehanna plant in Berwick or at Three Mile Island. Schuylkill County serves as a support county and is part of the evacuation plans for both facilities. Tamaqua and Marian high schools would also serve as evacuation shelters for up to 2,000 residents.

After 35 years, the subject of nuclear power remains a charged issue. Last week, an anti-nuclear power group called No Nukes Pennsylvania, held its 32nd vigil outside TMI's north gate.

Proponents of nuclear power point to the progress in technology and safety over the decades and the fact that it requires no pollution of the air and no burning of fossil fuels.

Opponents argue that the plants will never be completely safe and that the nuclear waste being stored throughout the country in temporary facilities will always pose a risk. One concern is that it could fall into the hands of terrorists looking to build dirty bombs.

A positive point from the pro-nuclear camp is that no one in this country has become seriously ill or has died because of any kind of accident at a civilian nuclear power plant.

Hopefully it remains that way and the nuclear fumbles caused by the near-disaster at TMI won't be repeated.

By Jim Zbick

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