March 2011, Week 3


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Wed, 16 Mar 2011 15:41:01 -0400
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Nuclear Revival? Lessons for Women from the Three Mile
Island Accident

By Karen Charman

On The Issues Magazine

March 16, 2011


For the first time in several decades, serious attempts are
underway to build new nuclear power reactors. The public is
told that nuclear power is a clean energy source needed to
combat global warming, which is caused by burning coal and
other fossil fuels. But as the nuclear disasters unfolding
in Japan in the wake of the devastating 9.0 earthquake and
tsunami are showing, nuclear power can be deadly. These
events may well alter the worldwide debate over nuclear
power. Whether they do or not, it's important to look
carefully at what happened at Three Mile Island, to date the
most serious accident at a commercial nuclear power plant in
the United States.

Three Mile Island is about 15 miles south of Harrisburg,
Pennsylvania's state capitol. The first reactor, Unit 1,
began operation in September 1974, and a second reactor,
Unit 2, started up in December 1978. Before dawn on March
28, 1979, a combination of mechanical malfunctions and human
errors resulted in a partial meltdown at Unit 2, which
destroyed the reactor, terrorized the community, and led to
decades-long legal battles and still unresolved death and
injury claims of more than 2,000 people in surrounding

The day of the accident, before the public was alerted,
hundreds of residents living near Three Mile Island reported
having had symptoms of radiation poisoning identical to
those described by U.S. service members and down winders of
atomic bomb blasts. These symptoms included a metallic taste
in their mouths; skin rashes and instant sunburn of exposed
skin; vomiting and/or diarrhea, which in some cases
continued for months; hair loss; and intense weakness and
flu-like symptoms.

Some also reported an eerie blue density in the air that
lasted for days; a grayish-white ash that fell to the ground
(also reported in the Marshall Islands immediately following
atomic bomb tests in the Pacific, where the U.S. exploded
106 atomic bombs between 1946 and 1962); an unnatural orange
glow above the reactor site; and rust-colored residue in
their sinks and tubs, indicating radioactive contamination
of the water supply. Several area residents reported the
metallic taste and other physical symptoms over the next few
years at times they later learned happened to coincide with
the venting of radioactive krypton gas during the cleanup.

Over time, unusually high numbers of both strange and common
cancers began showing up among residents, particularly those
living in the path of the radiation plumes that crept over
nearby communities during the first few days following the
accident. Myriad other health problems appeared --
miscarriages, stillbirths, infant deaths, thyroid diseases,
various autoimmune disorders, heart problems and the sudden
onset of allergies. Strange Diseases

Becky Mease, a nurse in her late twenties at the time, fled
with her husband, eight-month-old daughter Pam, and two
other adults two days after the accident, when then
Pennsylvania Governor Dick Thornburgh suggested that
pregnant women and preschool children within five miles of
Three Mile Island evacuate. They drove more than 250 miles
to Ocean City, Maryland, where they stayed for about three

Recounting her experience to citizen researchers Katagiri
Mitsuru and Aileen Smith in October 1982, Mease said Pam,
who had been outside playing in the grass the day of the
accident, had gotten violently ill with diarrhea and
projectile vomiting about two days after they left. A full
battery of tests at a local hospital failed to find any
bacteria or foreign organism, which could cause such
symptoms, so the hospital staff told them to go to a civil
defense station. Mease knew radiation sickness can cause
vomiting and diarrhea, so she asked the people at the civil
defense office to check their car and belongings with a
Geiger counter. "It just went completely crazy. It went like
nuts when it went over my pocketbook, too," she said. "They
told us to go wash everything down."

Pam's severe diarrhea lasted the entire three weeks they
were away. "Her behind was so raw that we just left it lay
on diapers. Didn't even put them on after a couple of days,"
said Mease.

In the summer of 1981, when Pam was two years old, she was
diagnosed with severe cataracts in both of her eyes, which
her doctor attributed to juvenile rheumatoid arthritis.

The Meases' ordeal was one of thousands area residents
suffered in the aftermath of the accident. But the radiation
effects weren't confined to humans. The evidence was visible
across the landscape, too, with unprecedented numbers of
sick and dying farm animals and strangely mutated plants.
Residents Struggle On Their Own

The residents were left to deal with these problems on their
own. Nearly four years after the Three Mile Island disaster,
citizens frustrated over the lack of help from public health
authorities and other government officials went door-to-door
to gather health data themselves. Mary Osborne, a longtime
Harrisburg resident, was one of the survey takers. "Our
door-to-door studies showed horrendous problems everywhere,"
she said. "At almost every household or every other
household we found cancer or some kind of emergency problem,
and in some cases, different family members had different
cancers." Osborne also noted significant numbers of women
who had pregnancy problems, babies with low birth weights,
neonatal and newborn deaths, and Downs syndrome.

Despite the fact that the citizens had consulted Dr. Carl J.
Johnson, an expert from Colorado, on the effects of
radiation and public health, to help design their survey,
the government and the nuclear industry dismissed their
results as "unscientific." The government and the nuclear
industry insisted then and now that nobody outside Three
Mile Island was killed or injured as a result of the
accident, because very little radiation escaped into the
surrounding community, and therefore no injuries or deaths
could have resulted from the accident.

But David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer-turned-whistleblower
who monitors the U.S. nuclear reactor fleet for the Union of
Concerned Scientists, says radiation monitors on the vent
stacks at Three Mile Island went off scale during the
accident. The exact amount of radiation released will never
be known, he says, because crucial records from the first
two days following the accident somehow never surfaced, and
not enough radiation dosimeters were deployed in surrounding
communities to give a true reading. What is known is that
the partial meltdown damaged at least 70 percent of the
reactor core and caused more than one-third of its highly
radioactive fuel to melt.

Three Mile Island plant owner Metropolitan Edison and the
Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) maintained that ten
million curies of radioactive gases were released into the
atmosphere from the accident, resulting in an average dose
to area residents equal to a chest X-ray.

Lochbaum says that figure is grossly underestimated, because
it is based on a measurement of radiation levels on the
Three Mile Island site a year after the fact and does not
account for shorter-lived radionuclides like iodine-131,
which would not have been measurable by that time. Nor, he
says, does the official figure include any leakage from the
containment building, the concrete dome surrounding the core
of the reactor, which is meant to prevent deadly radiation
from escaping into the environment in the event of an
accident. Lochbaum estimates that at least 40 million curies
were released during the accident. Other more recent
estimates by former nuclear industry executive Arnold
Gundersen calculated the radiation releases at 100 to 1,000
times higher than NRC estimates.

Health studies conducted by the Pennsylvania Department of
Health, various federal government agencies, and Columbia
University supported the nuclear industry claims. The
affected citizens contend these studies were sloppy and
included people who should not have been counted, excluded
many who should have been, or the researchers did not do the
necessary follow-up on people who left the area after the
accident. The citizens also say study authors uncritically
accepted the premise that not enough radiation was released
to cause the illnesses people were experiencing, so that
even when higher disease rates were found, they were
attributed to other factors such as stress or "lifestyle
factors" like smoking, drinking, poor diet, or taking too
much anti-anxiety medication. Nuclear Critics Drowned Out

Some scientists have attempted to find out what really
happened to the community after the accident. Dr. Ernest J.
Sternglass, a tenured professor of radiation physics at the
University of Pittsburgh, immediately sought every relevant
health statistic he could find. According to Sternglass, a
student of Albert Einstein's who holds several patents on X-
ray technology, the health impacts from the accident were
unquestionable, significant, and included a sharp spike in
infant deaths and hypothyroidism. Dr. Gordon MacLeod,
Pennsylvania's Secretary of Health at the time, tried to
ensure all health impacts from the accident were fully
disclosed. He was fired by then Governor Dick Thornburgh for
his efforts. More recently, University of North Carolina
epidemiologist Steve Wing reanalyzed the data from the
Columbia University study and concluded that people living
closer to the path of the radiation cloud developed all
types of cancers more frequently. In the areas of greatest
fallout, lung cancer rates jumped 400 percent, and leukemia
rates climbed 700 percent. These scientists -- and others
who question the nuclear orthodoxy -- have all been either
drowned out or viciously attacked as biased, unprofessional
purveyors of panic with an anti-nuclear axe to grind.

More than 2,000 people participated in a class-action
lawsuit claiming injuries against Three Mile Island.
Although an unknown number of cases settled out of court
with terms that must be kept confidential, in June 1996 the
class-action lawsuit was dismissed on the grounds that the
plaintiffs failed to prove that the Three Mile Island
accident had caused their health problems. Downwind Across
the Nation

Mary Osborne is deeply disillusioned by what she
characterizes as a gross miscarriage of justice. "Not a day
goes by that I don't think about the accident."

Nearly 32 years later, the Three Mile Island disaster and
its aftermath continue to shape the lives of many who were
exposed to the radioactive fallout. Three Mile Island serves
as a model of what American citizens can expect if another
nuclear disaster were to occur. With 104 mostly aging
nuclear reactors not only still running but virtually all
being granted 20-year license extensions, and, in some
cases, permits to generate more power than they were
designed to do, David Lochbaum believes that sheer luck
rather than good management or serious concern for safety
has so far prevented another nuclear disaster. Considering
that approximately 190 million citizens live within 100
miles of at least one nuclear reactor, let's hope that luck

[Karen Charman is managing editor of the journal Capitalism
Nature Socialism. She is also an award-winning independent
investigative environmental journalist with a special
interest in nuclear issues. Aside from CNS, her work has
appeared in World Watch, Sierra, OnEarth, The Nation, FAIR's
journal Extra!, In These Times, The Progressive and other


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