Nuclear Neighbors

The cooling towers at Three Mile Island nuclear plant loom over Middletown, PA.

The city of Okuma Japan has been evacuated indefinitely pending the outcome of the crisis at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, where the cooling system for at least two of three failing reactors have yet to be powered up more than a week after the area was rattled by a 9.0 earthquake then ravaged by a 33-foot tsunami. So far, nuclear meltdown has spared Japan, but the situation remains serious. As of tonight, engineers are considering whether they’ll have to entomb the plant’s No. 3 reactor in concrete, the ‘Chernobyl Option.’

Predictably, the crisis has raised questions about the safety and risks of nuclear power, which, as an industry, has made major inroads in recent years. Currently, America is home to 104 nuclear power plants. About twelve more plants were being considered when the tsunami struck Japan. Some pundits claim now that the industry, at least in America, is dead. China, meanwhile, intends on proceeding full-boar with its twenty-five planned nuclear plants over the coming years.

This past weekend I visited two of Pennsylvania’s nuclear communities, one being Frick’s Lock, the other Middletown, home to the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear plant. Coming into both places, you can see from miles out the plumes of water vapor rising from the cooling towers, which themselves rise above the tree line, offering an ominous visual cue that says, ‘You’re in the hot zone.”

Despite the partial meltdown in 1979, one of the reactors remains operational.

Around 4 a.m. on March 28, 1979, nuclear coolant began escaping from a reactor at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station when a valve refused to close. A series of subsequent malfunctions occurred over the next two hours, allowing the release of some 32,000 gallons of radioactive coolant. At 7 a.m., three hours after the initial incident, an emergency was declared and within days, some 140,000 people had evacuated the area.

The reactor was eventually brought under control, suffering only a partial meltdown of its No. 2 reactor core. The No. 2 reactor has since been dismantled, with its No. 1 reactor still in operation following years of disservice. Officially, the radiation released posed no health risks, although nuclear energy opponents have argued otherwise. Some scientists claim that communities downwind from the site saw spikes in infant mortality rates and lowered reproductive rates among livestock. During the 1980s and 90s, more than $82 million in compensation was paid out to those in the affected area, including $15 million to parents of children with birth defects.

In the 1960s, PECO (Philadelphia Electric Company), began making plans to build a nuclear power plant along the Schuykill Canal, on the other side of which was a small village called Frick’s Lock, which is now pointlessly listed on the National Register of Historic Places, since to see the buildings you have to first break the law.

The village is more than 250 years old, meaning some of its buildings pre-date America’s revolution. Its oldest was built in 1754. But by 1986, when the power plant went online, PECO evicted the remaining residents of Frick’s Lock, giving some of them just forty-eight hours’ notice. This action effectively turned Frick’s Lock into a ghost town of ten rotting buildings connected by overgrown sidewalks and unpaved road.

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