‘Meltdown: Three Mile Island’ Explained: What Caused The Explosion? Did Rick Parks Become A Whistleblower?

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Netflix’s documentary series “Meltdown: Three Mile Island” provides a solid insight into the days of March 1979, when Middletown and a larger part of Pennsylvania were gripped by the fear of a nuclear meltdown. Combining documentary-style footage and interviews with fictional recreations of certain events, which has become a staple style of most Netflix documentaries by now, the show also follows the mismanagement around the accident and the investigation that followed.

What is ‘Meltdown: Three Mile Island’ about?

On the morning of March 28th, 1979, numerous alarms started going off simultaneously in the control room of unit 2 of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania. Despite multiple operators being present in the control room, the odd timing of the event, and also the unprecedented nature of it, left all workers confused and baffled about what was actually happening. Noticing the rising core temperature in the reactor and the level of water in the chamber shown to be almost full, one of the operators called for shutting down the pumps taking water into the reactor to cool it down. It is made very evident by the interviewees who talk about the incident in the present in front of the documentary crew, that cutting off coolant from a heating nuclear reactor is the worst thing to do at any time. Soon, a radiation protection supervisor was brought into the facility, and the operators now realized that a release valve in the reactor coolant chamber was stuck open and could not be shut back off. This was causing a loss of any freshwater across the reactor, which kept heating up rapidly, and it was also heating up the standing water around it towards boiling temperatures. Things started getting worse pretty soon, when high levels of radiation were also noticed in the unit 2 building, and then gradually throughout the premises. The company owning the site, MetEd, shut down the reactor and reported the incident to be a minor matter without any safety hazard to the community living close by, to both the government and the press.

But news of radiation leaks found in the form of radioactive iodine found in a nearby location got out, and there was gradually a state of fear among citizens living in the Middletown locality, very close to the power plant. This was further aggravated by a bizarre coincidence—a disaster movie called “The China Syndrome” had come out just twelve days ago, which had shown the catastrophe that can hit if there is a nuclear meltdown at a power plant. Despite rising radiation levels, the government remained skeptical about calling for an evacuation yet, as that would disrupt public life terribly. Tremendous chaos ensues, as residents are given very confusing and conflicting advice regarding keeping themselves safe, and the Pennsylvania State government finds out that the federal body in control of nuclear safety, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), itself, had a split in it with regards to the matter of Three Mile Island. Although the core temperatures were managed back to normalcy by the third day, a new and deadlier threat now posed itself, as a hydrogen bubble was discovered inside the reactor, which could explode to devastating effects.

What Had Caused The Explosion? How Much Was The Authority’s Negligence Involved?

The fear regarding the hydrogen anomaly inside the reactor grows, as noted physicist Michio Kaku (an interviewee in the series) claims that the possibility was similar to the later incident that happened in Chernobyl in 1986. News shows are now widely covering the matter, which, if it goes wrong, could make the entire Pennsylvania state and possibly a huge part of the US east coast inhabitable for decades. This creates a tremendous panic among citizens who start moving away from their homes and lives in order to keep themselves safe from the imminent danger. President Jimmy Carter also personally visited the site in an attempt to provide support to residents around the power plant, but the authorities soon had to let out harmful gasses through a method of venting, i.e., by letting out radioactive gasses into the open air, in order to avoid any explosion. Although the crisis was averted, and regulations regarding the shutdown of schools and public places were lifted, it was now time for serious conversations regarding how the accident had been caused and what sort of radioactive effect it had left on the people. Within days, accounts of internal as well as skin-related anomalies and radiation sickness were reported by many, especially along the banks of the nearby Susquehanna River. People were now rallying in support of shutting down the TMI nuclear plant completely and calling for an end to the use of nuclear power for commercial purposes. But this was now in direct conflict with the US government’s plan to prepare nuclear power as the next alternate source of energy. The NRC, too, was founded mostly for the purpose of propagating the safety of nuclear power, and it continued to serve that purpose to the extent of forsaking public safety.

After tests and testimonials were conducted after the accident, it was initially found that most of the errors were human errors that had happened because the operators had never had any prior experience, practical or theoretical, as to what to do in case of a nuclear emergency. The authorities at first try to downplay one mechanical error as a one-off incident, but it is soon revealed that there had been concerns regarding the safety of that mechanical part earlier as well, but the NRC members did not pay much attention to it. It was finally concluded that the power plant would have had a devastating nuclear meltdown in roughly another thirty minutes had the situation not stabilized. Three years after the accident, in 1982, researchers sent a probe with a camera into the reactor and realized that the core itself had gone through half a meltdown, as its top portion had melted and fallen on itself. The owners of the plant, MetEd, and NRC, still keep claiming that the radiation had minimal effects on humans and other living beings around, and they now started a costly cleanup process with the intention of getting the nuclear plant back into business. The cleanup was handed out to a private agency called Bechtel, who had prior experience in nuclear construction, and also had direct political links. The appointment of Bechtel to carry out a quick and hasty cleanup was to try and reinstate public faith in nuclear power, as the US government was too invested in it, and Bechtel had direct ties with President Ronald Reagan.

Why Did Rick Parks Have To Turn Into A Whistleblower?

As the cleanup work began, operators and workers of the power plant noticed a sense of unusual urgency and haste in the corporation and the NRC’s work, and this planted a seed of doubt in the minds of Rick Parks, one of the operators. Rick had received nuclear training as part of the US Army, and had been an avid believer in nuclear power. As part of the cleanup process, the private corporation was encouraging volunteers to physically enter extremely radioactive sites without adequate protection, risking thousands of lives. The biggest challenge at the time, though, was to lift up the molten top of the reactor from the inside bed of it, and a large polar crane with radioactive prevention was to be used. The original crane that the reactor building had was destroyed during the accident, and so a new one had to be made. A new crane was built very quickly into existence as well, but Rick and a couple of other nuclear experts involved in the process were shocked to see that Bechtel was not going through any of the safety checks and precautionary tests that the crane needed to be run through before any practical implementation. Noticing that Bechtel simply avoided hearing his concern, Rick moved up and met with the NRC director in charge of the cleanup, and brought the matter to his notice. But Rick was even more shocked when the NRC officer ignored his concern and preferred fast action over safety. The corporation also soon fired the two other engineers from the cleanup, and also removed Rick from any significant role, and tried to falsely incriminate him by planting drugs in his car.

Five days before the planned polar crane lift, in March of 1983, Rick had no choice but to turn to the Government Accountability Project organization that had a lot of experience in representing nuclear whistleblowers. Rick met with their agents and lawyers and presented his whole concern to them with proof and engineering drawings—if the untested polar crane turned out to be faulty, then it posed the risk of dropping the wreckage deeper into the molten reactor, the effect of which could be a catastrophic nuclear explosion that could wipe out vast distances around the power plant. The GAP took up Rick’s report and decided to represent his cause, while Rick realized that his house had been ransacked in search of the papers he had already submitted to the GAP lawyer. On the day of the polar crane lift, Rick’s report was submitted to the NRC before they voted amongst themselves with regards to the planned operation. The Commission ultimately acknowledged the tremendous safety flaw in the plan and immediately called off the polar crane lift, much to the jubilation of Rick and all the supporting citizens of Middletown, who were by now aware of Bechtel’s negligent deeds. The federal government was heavily critical of the negligence and callousness involved in the cleanup process, and even more, shocking revelations were made by the next year. It was now found that operators in the Three Mile Island control center were aware of the presence of the hydrogen bubble inside the nuclear reactor from day one itself, but had not reported it till a few days later, to avoid having to completely shut the reactor down. There had been a smaller explosion inside the plant as well, as photographic evidence showed melted telephones and other objects, but they kept it hidden from the government and the public eye. Even much before the accident, the power plant had falsified leak data, of which the faulty release valve was part, in order to keep the plant operational despite the tremendous danger that it held.

‘Meltdown: Three Mile Island’ Ending: What Was The Fate Of The Nuclear Power Plant?

The polar crane was later put to test a year later after going through all safety checks, but it still failed to work properly during the operation, but to no harm. Six years after the incident, in 1985, the NRC again voted amongst itself to call the TMI nuclear plant back into action and decided to start the undamaged unit 1 of the plant while cleanup of unit 2 continued. This again sparked massive outrage and protest among the local residents, but to little effect, as authorities kept claiming that no considerable harm had been caused by the accident. The government gradually conducted health checkup drives through which it concluded that not much radioactive effect was seen on the residents. However, research by private doctors still claims that the number of cancer patients in the area close to where radioactivity has largely spread is twice as many as in other areas. What the terrible averted travesty at Three Mile Island managed to do, though, was a steep decline in the demand for nuclear power plants. “Meltdown: Three Mile Island” presents figures at the end that show that since the accident in 1979, only two new nuclear reactors have been licensed in the USA, neither of which have opened due to being tremendously over budget. Finally, in 2019, the TMI nuclear plant was also shut down, citing heavy competition from other energy resources and the popularity of a deadly power source as nuclear energy continues to diminish.

“Meltdown: Three Mile Island” is a 2022 Documentary series streaming on Netflix.

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Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya Sur Roy
Sourya keeps an avid interest in all sorts of films, history, sports, videogames and everything related to New Media. Holding a Master of Arts degree in Film Studies, he is currently working as a teacher of Film Studies at a private school and also remotely as a Research Assistant and Translator on a postdoctoral project at UdK Berlin.

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