Saturday, March 19, 2011

Nuclear Revival? Lessons for Women fromThree Mile Island

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 communities.


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 weeks.


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 holds.


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 publications.




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