Three Mile Island: The Real Collapse Behind The Netflix Show

43 years after the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster, a new generation of Americans can learn about it on Netflix.

A new documentary series on the streaming service, Meltdown: Three Mile IslandIt debuted on May 4 and tells the story of the worst nuclear accident in American history, using a combination of historical scenes and reenactments.

But what is the real Three Mile Island and why do Americans still talk about it? It’s not easy to learn the whole story even after 40 years. Memory of the event was blurred, and official reports at the time were incomplete and sometimes misleading. Here’s what we know.


The Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant was a nuclear power plant in the now closed township of Londonderry, Pennsylvania. It had two reactors, TMI-1 and TMI-2.

TMI-2 is where the problem is. On March 28, 1979, around 4 am, the reactor’s cooling water pump began to fail, causing the reactor to overheat. Without the operator’s knowledge, the relief valve was locked open, leaking valuable coolant even when the chamber appeared to be full. Confused operators shut off the pump, further overheating the reactor.

Radiation levels at TMI-2, and eventually throughout the Three Mile Island facility, began to skyrocket. Fearing the explosion, engineers began releasing radioactive vapors into the atmosphere, potentially exposing communities to harmful radiation. This will be done a few more times over the next two days.

Eventually, Metropolitan Edison (Met-Ed), the company that operated the reactor, shut down TMI-2. Years later, when scientists were able to fully assess the damage, they discovered that half of the reactor core had melted.


According to the timeline outlined in Patriot NewsThe first press conference for the incident took place on the morning of March 28, and greatly downplayed the seriousness of what was happening.

Around 11 a.m., Pennsylvania Lieutenant Governor William Scranton III said the situation was “under control” and that “there appears to be no risk to public health or safety.” As he spoke, the engineers were blowing radioactive vapors into the air.

About two hours later, a Met-Ed official named John Herbein reassured the public that “the plant is in safe condition.”

Government officials resisted evacuation orders, despite the fact that the radioactive gas caused an “uncontrolled” explosion around 7 am on March 30. At 10:35 a.m., Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornberg’s spokesman said, “There is no need to evacuate.”

About two hours later, Thornburgh advised pregnant women and young children to leave the area and closed 23 schools, but did not order a complete evacuation. Many residents have decided to leave the village on their own.


The crisis finally ended on April 2, when the TMI-2 reactor began to cool down. In its immediate aftermath, the disaster caused no known injuries or illnesses, and after a few years, most studies found negligible long-term health effects (some experts disagree).

But the accident certainly had an emotional impact. Fear of a nuclear disaster and distrust of government announcements about it have poisoned public opinion about nuclear power for decades. That fear was exacerbated by the Chernobyl 1986 and 2011 Fukushima disasters, which retarded industry growth in the United States.

In 2019, the TMI-1 reactor was shut down due to financial losses and the remaining reactors at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Power Plant were shut down. Today, the public is only reminded of the disaster through the eerie, unused cooling towers of power plants and Netflix shows.

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