Route 441 in central Pennsylvania is the kind of road you might find yourself drawn down during a relaxed weekend drive. It winds its way south along the curve of the Susquehanna River, flanked by trees, with fields, pastures and large, low-slung houses along one side.
On the other, visible through the foliage and across the water, sit the hulking towers of the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. There is nothing to suggest, at least outwardly, that almost 32 years ago the place was the site of the worst nuclear accident in U.S. history.
From their ample front yards, several homeowners can see the plant, one of whose units is still running. So, too, can customers visiting a nearby garden centre that sells flowers and plants under a glass enclosure. Within five kilometres sit a church, a golf course and the historic borough of Middletown, founded in 1755.
For those who remember the accident, the fear lingers, even though there were no injuries. On March 28, 1979, a cascade of events at Unit Two of the plant - equipment malfunctions and human errors - led to a partial meltdown of the core, releasing radioactive gases into the air. Two days later, authorities recommended that pregnant women and young children within eight kilometres of the plant leave the area. In the ensuing panic, an estimated 140,000 people fled before the crisis abated on April 1.
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission now says that despite the serious damage to the reactor, the health and environmental impacts of the accident were "negligible." It cites estimates that two million people were exposed to radiation equalling only a fraction of the dose from a chest x-ray. People directly around the plant were more affected, it says, but within normal ranges for yearly exposure to radiation from natural sources.
The debate remains, however. Some local residents said they experienced reddened skin, vomiting and hair loss, signs of elevated radiation exposure. Some said they watched their pets take ill and die. Two epidemiological studies in the 1990s, working from the same data, drew opposite conclusions about the prevalence of cancer in the area. One found that people living downwind of the plant experienced two to 10 times the rate of lung cancer and leukemia as those upwind. The other said there was no link between the accident and cancer rates.
The disaster set off a profound crisis in the U.S. nuclear power industry, forcing an overhaul of safety procedures and scuttling the development of new plants for years. At Three Mile Island, Unit Two was permanently shuttered. Unit One, now owned by Exelon Corp., produces enough electricity to supply 800,000 homes.