Nuclear Energy

What actually happened at Three Mile Island?

The worst commercial nuclear accident in the United States occurred at Three Mile Island. The Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown of its reactor core and radiation leakage. On March 28, 1979, just after 4:00A.M., a water pump in the secondary cooling system of the Unit 2 pressurized water reactor failed. A relief valve jammed open, flooding the containment vessel with radioactive water. A backup system for pumping water was down for maintenance.

Temperatures inside the reactor core rose, fuel rods ruptured, and a partial (52 percent) meltdown occurred, because the radioactive uranium core was almost entirely uncovered by coolant for 40 minutes. The thick steel-reinforced containment building prevented nearly all the radiation from escaping—the amount of radiation released into the atmosphere was one-millionth of that at Chernobyl. However, if the coolant had not been replaced, the molten fuel would have penetrated the reactor containment vessel, where it would have come into contact with the water, causing a steam explosion, breaching the reactor dome, and leading to radioactive contamination of the area similar to the Chernobyl accident.


This is a web preview of the "The Handy Science Answer Book" app. Many features only work on your mobile device. If you like what you see, we hope you will consider buying. Get the App