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30 Years and Counting

People Died at Three Mile Island

by HARVEY WASSERMAN

People died–and are still dying–at Three Mile Island.

As the thirtieth anniversary of America’s most infamous industrial accident approaches, we mourn the deaths that accompanied the biggest string of lies ever told in US industrial history.

As news of the accident poured into the global media, the public was assured there were no radiation releases.

That quickly proved to be false.

The public was then told the releases were controlled and done purposely to alleviate pressure on the core. 

Both those assertions were false.  

The public was told the releases were "insignificant."

But stack monitors were saturated and unusable, and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission later told Congress it did not know—and STILL does not know—how much radiation was released at Three Mile Island, or where it went.

Using unsubstantiated estimates of how much radiation was released, the government issued average doses allegedly received by people in the region, which it assured the public were safe.  But the estimates were utterly meaningless, among other things ignoring the likelihood that high doses of concentrated fallout could come down heavily on specific areas.  

Official estimates said a uniform dose to all persons in the region was equivalent to a single chest x-ray.  But pregnant women are no longer x-rayed because it has long been known a single dose can do catastrophic damage to an embryo or fetus in utero.   

The public was told there was no melting of fuel inside the core.

But robotic cameras later showed a very substantial portion of the fuel did melt.

The public was told there was no danger of an explosion. 

But there was, as there had been at Michigan’s Fermi reactor in 1966. In 1986, Chernobyl Unit Four did explode.

The public was told there was no need to evacuate anyone from the area.  

But Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh then evacuated pregnant women and small children.  Unfortunately, many were sent to nearby Hershey, which was showered with fallout.

In fact, the entire region should have been immediately evacuated.  It is standard wisdom in the health physics community that—due in part to the extreme vulnerability of human embryos, fetuses and small children, as well as the weaknesses of old age—there is no safe dose of radiation, and none will ever be found.  

The public was assured the government would follow up with meticulous studies of the health impacts of the accident.

In fact, the state of Pennsylvania hid the health impacts, including deletion of cancers from the public record, abolition of the state’s tumor registry, misrepresentation of the impacts it could not hide (including an apparent tripling of the infant death rate in nearby Harrisburg) and much more.

The federal government did nothing to track the health histories of the region’s residents. 

In fact, the most reliable studies were conducted by local residents like Jane Lee and Mary Osborne, who went door-to-door in neighborhoods where the fallout was thought to be worst.  Their surveys showed very substantial plagues of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, respiratory problems, hair loss, rashes, lesions and much more.  

A study by Columbia University claimed there were no significant health impacts, but its data by some interpretations points in the opposite direction.  Investigations by epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Wing of the University of North Carolina, and others, led Wing to warn that the official studies on the health impacts of the accident suffered from “logical and methodological problems.” Studies by Wing and by Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry official, being announced this week at Harrisburg, significantly challenge official pronouncements on both radiation releases and health impacts. 

Gundersen, a leading technical expert on nuclear engineering, says:
“When I correctly interpreted the containment pressure spike and the doses measured in the environment after the TMI accident, I proved that TMI’s releases were about one hundred times higher than the industry and the NRC claim, in part because the containment leaked.  This new data supports the epidemiology of Dr. Steve Wing and proves that there really were injuries from the accident.  New reactor designs are also effected, as the NRC is using its low assumed release rates to justify decreases in emergency planning and containment design."

Data unearthed by radiologist Dr. Ernest Sternglass of the University of Pittsburgh, and statisticians Jay Gould (now deceased) and Joe Mangano of New York have led to strong assertions of major public health impacts.  On-going work by Sternglass and Mangano clearly indicates that "normal" reactor radiation releases of far less magnitude that those at TMI continue to have catastrophic impacts on local populations.  

Anecdotal evidence among the local human population has been devastating.  Large numbers of central Pennsylvanians suffered skin sores and lesions that erupted while they were out of doors as the fallout rained down on them.  Many quickly developed large, visible tumors, breathing problems, and a metallic taste in their mouths that matched that experienced by some of the men who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and who were exposed to nuclear tests in the south Pacific and Nevada.  

A series of interviews conducted by Robbie Leppzer and compiled in a  “a two-hour public radio documentary VOICES FROM THREE MILE ISLAND give some indication of the horrors experienced by the people of central Pennsylvania.

They are further underscored by harrowing broadcasts from then-CBS News anchor Walter Cronkite warning that “the world has never known a day quite like today. It faced the considerable uncertainties and dangers of the worst nuclear power plant accident of the atomic age. And the horror tonight is that it could get much worse.”

In March of 1980, I went into the region and compiled a range of interviews clearly indicating widespread health damage done by radiation from the accident.  The survey led to the book KILLING OUR OWN, co-authored with Norman Solomon, Robert Alvarez and Eleanor Walters which correlated the damage done at TMI with that suffered during nuclear bomb tests, atomic weapons production, mis-use of medical x-rays, the painting of radium watch dials, uranium mining and milling, radioactive fuel production, failed attempts at waste disposal, and more.  

My research at TMI also uncovered a plague of death and disease among the area’s wild animals and farm livestock.  Entire bee hives expired immediately after the accident, along with a disappearance
of birds, many of whom were found scattered dead on the ground.  A rash of malformed pets were born and stillborn, including kittens that could not walk and a dog with no eyes.  Reproductive rates among the
region’s cows and horses plummeted.  

Much of this was documented by a three-person investigative team from the Baltimore News-American, which made it clear that the problems could only have been caused by radiation.  Statistics from Pennsylvania’s Department of Agriculture confirmed the plague, but the state denied its existence, and said that if it did exist, it could not have been caused by TMI. 

In the mid-1980s the citizens of the three counties surrounding Three Mile Island voted by a margin of 3:1 to permanently retired TMI Unit One, which had been shut when Unit Two melted.  The Reagan Administration trashed the vote and re-opened the reactor, which still operates.  Its owners now seek a license renewal.

Some 2400 area residents have long-since filed a class action lawsuit demanding compensation for the plague of death and disease visited upon their families.  In the past quarter-century they have been denied access to the federal court system, which claims there was not enough radiation released to do such harm.  TMI’s owners did quietly pay out millions in damages to area residents whose children were born with genetic damage, among other things.  The payments came in exchange for silence among those receiving them.  

But for all the global attention focused on the accident and its health effects, there has never been a binding public trial to test the assertion by thousands of conservative central Pennsylvanians that radiation from TMI destroyed their lives.  

So while the nuclear power industry continues to assert that "no one died at Three Mile Island," it refuses to allow an open judicial hearing on the hundreds of cases still pending.  

As the pushers of the "nuclear renaissance" demand massive tax- and rate-payer subsidies to build yet another generation of reactors, they cynically stonewall the obvious death toll that continues to mount at the site of an accident that happened thirty years ago.  The "see no evil" mantra continues to define all official approaches to the victims of this horrific disaster.  

Ironically, like Chernobyl, Three Mile Island Unit Two was a state-of-the-art reactor.  Its official opening came on December 28, 1978, and it melted exactly three months later.  Had it operated longer,
the accumulated radiation spewing from its core almost certainly would have been far greater.

 Every reactor now operating in the US is much older—nearly all fully three decades older—than TMI-2 when it melted.  Their potential fallout that could dwarf what came down in 1979.  

But the Big Lie remains officially in tact.  Expect to hear all week that TMI was "a success story" because "no one was killed."  

But in mere moments that brand new reactor morphed from a $900 million asset to a multi-billion-dollar liability.  It could happen to any atomic power plant, now, tomorrow and into the future.  

Meanwhile, the death toll from America’s worst industrial catastrophe continues to rise.  More than ever, it is shrouded in official lies and desecrated by a reactor-pushing “renaissance” hell-bent on repeating the nightmare on an even larger scale.  

HARVEY WASSERMAN has been writing about atomic energy and the green alternatives since 1973.  His 1982 assertion to Bryant Gumbel on NBC’s TODAY Show that people were killed at TMI sparked a national mailing from the reactor industry demanding a retraction. NBC was later bought by Westinghouse, still a major force pushing atomic power. He is the author of SOLARTOPIA! Our Green-Powered Earth, A.D. 2030, is at www.solartopia.org. He can be reached at: Windhw@aol.com