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story.lead_photo.caption Cooling towers at the Exelon Corp. Three Mile Island nuclear power plant on April 11, 2018. MUST CREDIT: Bloombrg photo by Michelle Gustafson.

MIDDLETOWN, Pa. -- The nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island is set to shut down next month, 15 years before its license expires and 40 years after the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.

When a pump failed in the early hours of March 28, 1979, steam generators were unable to draw heat out of a reactor at the plant in Middletown, Pa. An emergency shutdown was triggered, but another problem -- a stuck valve -- was letting coolant escape from the reactor core.

The core's fuel began to overheat, causing a partial meltdown and release of radiation. The reactor, one of two at the plant, has been silent ever since.

But just across the complex, which sits 100 miles west of Philadelphia along the Susquehanna River, the other unit is one of the region's biggest power sources, churning out electricity for 45 years without incident.

However, the shale revolution has made the United States the world's biggest producer of natural gas. The abundance of the fossil fuel has dragged down its price, making it the largest source of the nation's electricity. At the same time, wind and solar power have been booming as the costs of components and installation fall. That makes it tough for nuclear plants to compete.

When plant owner Exelon Corp. shutters the entire facility next month, it will be not because of mechanical failures and human error, but because of the economics of the modern utility industry.

Seven U.S. power plants have shut down since 2013, and owners have announced plans to close several more. States that include New York, New Jersey and Illinois have offered subsidies for nuclear power, but legislation to do the same in Pennsylvania foundered in the face of strong opposition from residents -- and from supporters of renewables and gas.

Hollywood isn't helping, either. The demise of America's most notorious commercial facility comes after renewed public interest in the downsides of nuclear energy, largely because of the hit HBO miniseries Chernobyl. The five-episode drama that first aired in May laid out the events surrounding the April 1986 explosion at a power plant in Ukraine -- then part of the USSR. It was the worst nuclear accident the planet has ever seen.

While the program was criticized for getting some details wrong, it received praise for showing the terrible effects of radiation poisoning, and for explaining the enormous geographic impact of a full-scale nuclear disaster.

Compared with the release of radiation at Chernobyl, which the United Nations estimated in 2005 may eventually kill 4,000 people, the accident at Three Mile Island was minor. Only a small amount of radioactive material was released, and it was later determined that the 2 million people in the surrounding area were exposed to less radiation than they would have received from a chest X-ray.

However, the immediate reaction to the event was characterized by fear and confusion. Schools were closed, people were told to stay indoors and state officials urged children and pregnant women to voluntarily evacuate. In the aftermath, public support for nuclear energy fell dramatically, and government oversight of the industry increased significantly.

Today, nuclear energy in the U.S. is at the center of a complicated debate.

President Donald Trump has taken steps to support unprofitable nuclear and coal power plants, citing national security issues because, unlike renewable-energy plants, they generate electricity around the clock. Some of his efforts have been rejected by federal energy regulators.

Meanwhile, environmental groups have mixed feeling about reactors. Some are concerned about the accumulating nuclear waste that will remain deadly for thousands of years, as well as the potential for mishaps. Still, others argue that burning natural gas contributes to climate change, and that nuclear power is at least carbon-free.

A Section on 08/18/2019

Print Headline: Notorious for '79 accident, 3 Mile Island to shut early

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