The two words 'nuclear meltdown' spark visions of protective suits, containment zones and cancer. In the days before Chernobyl and Fukushima, three other words were synonymous with nuclear disaster in the United States: Three Mile Island. But now, reports the Associated Press, the plant where the United States’ worst-ever commercial nuclear accident took place will close.
Three Mile Island’s owner, Exelon Corporation, has announced that the site near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania will shut down in 2019, the AP reports. They cite financial losses and a failure to receive financial incentives similar to the ones given to renewable energy companies for the closure.
Since the 1979 accident, just one reactor at the two-reactor plant in has been in operation. The partial meltdown, which affected reactor number two, occurred due to mechanical malfunctions and human errors.
Large amounts of radioactive gas were released and confusion ensued. As a hydrogen bubble grew inside the container that held the reactor core, pregnant women and children under the age of five were told to leave the area. Though the health effects of the accident were thought to be “negligible,” writes The New York Times’ Clyde Haberman, the psychological effects were “immense.” Widespread protests followed, and the nuclear industry in the United States never really recovered.
Ironically, health problems in some areas near nuclear plant closures may have risen due to the increased use of coal. As Smithsonian.com reported earlier this year, a study linked the temporary closure of Tennessee Valley nuclear power plants after the Three Mile Island accident to lower birth weights—likely because coal power became more prevalent during the pause.
In the nearly 40 years since the accident, the power industry has changed. Exelon officials tell the York Daily Record’s Brett Sholtis that declining electricity usage and the power industry’s increasing reliance on natural gas has made it hard to stay profitable. The company, which continues to produce relatively little power due to its single reactor, recently tried to sell its electricity to the power grid, but failed three times.
As Reuters reports, Three Mile Island is far from the only nuclear power plant to shut down recently: Six reactors have shuttered in the U.S. since 2013, and Switzerland recently voted to phase out nuclear power altogether. Though the future of energy remains unclear—nuclear seems to be growing increasingly unpopular.