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Three Mile Island, 35 Years Later


March 28 will mark 35 years since the meltdown at Unit 2 of the Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Despite the long passage of time, myths and misinformation about the disaster still abound. Many questions may remain permanently unanswered.

The consequences of the TMI disaster were made more serious because, early on, emergency planning officials were repeatedly misinformed about the disaster’s progression and kept in the dark about the need for public protective actions.

Ironically, despite today’s popular “too much information” shorthand, TMI is a story of “too little information.” What the public believes about TMI is far removed from what really happened.

The often repeated nuclear industry line — that “no one died at Three Mile Island” — does not stand the test of fundamental medical scrutiny. Yet, 35 years later, we are hearing it again, put about by nuclear deniers who also claim that the Chernobyl nuclear explosion harmed a mere handful and that the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan will yield no fatalities.

Given what we know about exposure to radiation, it is medically far more probable that there were multiple fatalities as a result of TMI, as well as non-fatal cancers and other illnesses. The numbers will be orders of magnitude higher as a result of the even more serious Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear catastrophes. There are other prematurely fatal outcomes too, triggered by stress, dislocation and abandonment. None of these should be callously discounted.

The two TMI studies — by Columbia and Pittsburgh Universities — that have perpetuated the “no harm” myth, were conducted under the constraints of a court order that significantly compromised the study findings.

The only independent study, by Dr. Stephen Wing et al., found that lung cancer and leukemia rates were two to 10 times higher downwind of the destroyed Three Mile Island reactor than upwind.

This supports the premise that far more radiation escaped from TMI than has been acknowledged by the authorities. Within hours of the beginning of the nuclear disaster, onsite radiation monitors went off scale and were shut down because radiation levels exceeded their measurement capacity.

In the days following the TMI meltdown, hundreds of local residents reported symptoms consistent with those caused by radiation exposure. These include nausea and vomiting, severe fatigue, diarrhea, hair loss and graying, and a radiation-induced reddening of the skin.

There were anomalies found in animals and plants as well. A number of plants exhibited strange mutations including extra large leaves (gigantism) and double-headed blossoms. A local veterinarian reported a 10% increase in stillbirths, and a marked increase in the need for Cesarean Sections among sheep, goats and pigs. He also reported significant increases in the cancer rate among animals with shorter life-spans such as dogs and cats. These findings are consistent with research around Chernobyl. Similar incidences are beginning to be seen around Fukushima.

However, the most notable parallel between the three disasters is the control of information. By suppressing weather data, evacuations were delayed or directed into the radioactive plume path. There were deliberate under-estimations of the radiation releases and the true severity of the disaster was hushed up. This was done in order to protect the nuclear industry’s reputation and to allay “panic.”

This meant that public health was compromised to protect the industry’s public image. For example, potassium iodide — which can protect the thyroid — was unavailable to exposed populations around TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima, leading to elevated rates of thyroid problems, including cancer.

Such consequences are avoidable, first and foremost by closing operating reactors and halting construction of new ones.

As Ralph Nader recently put it on Democracy Now! “Nuclear power is uneconomic, it is uninsurable, it is unevacuable, and it is unnecessary. The sooner we phase it out, the sooner we avoid the risk of rendering hundreds of square miles in our country radioactively uninhabitable. It’s not worth the risk in order just to boil water.”

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear, a Takoma Park, MD-based anti-nuclear advocacy organization that supports the replacement of nuclear power and fossil fuels with conservation, energy efficiency and renewable energy.

The Beyond Nuclear analysis, Three Mile Island: The Truth, can be found on the Beyond Nuclear website.

Beyond Nuclear background documents on the TMI disaster can be found here.

Linda Pentz Gunter is the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear. She also serves as director of media and development. 

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