Viewpoint: Lessons from Three Mile Island aren't over
Alan Muller is an environmental consultant. He has been executive director of Green Delaware, an environmental and public advocacy organization in Delaware, since 1995, and before that was a contract consultant DuPont Co.’s engineering department. Muller focuses on environmental and health issues including energy; waste; incinerators; air, water and land quality and pollution; and climate change.
Forty years ago, on March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island Unit 2 nuclear power reactor in central Pennsylvania partially melted down and experienced at least one explosion.
The causes were a combination of equipment failures, design defects, and operator errors. The operators did not have accurate indications of what was going on in the reactor, so they couldn't make the right decisions. Reportedly, more than half of the radiation monitors in the area were broken, so there was not adequate indication of how much radioactivity was released and where it went.
Days afterwards Gov. Dick Thornburgh "advised pregnant women and pre-school age children to leave the area within a five-mile radius of the Three Mile Island facility until further notice. This led to the panic the governor had hoped to avoid; within days, more than 100,000 people had fled surrounding towns."
Ever since the TMI meltdown, nuke industry sources and public health authorities have claimed that too little radioactivity was released to harm peoples' health. For example, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission says:
"The Three Mile Island Unit 2 reactor, near Middletown, Pa., partially melted down on March 28, 1979. This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, although its small radioactive releases had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public."
Failure to investigate TMI health effects was published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2004. This included failure to investigate, media blackouts, and the firing of Pennsylvania Health Commissioner Gordon MacLeod by Thornburgh after he pointed out increases in infant mortality and other health problems near TMI.
Jane Lee, a local farmer, with others, went door to door and said they had found and documented many acute health problems. I knew Jane toward the end of her life. She'd been unable to arrange publication of her work, and wasn't online. A deposit of Jane Lee Papers at Dickenson College (Carlisle, Pa.) may hold some of this information.
More recently (2017)
"A new Penn State College of Medicine study has found a link between the 1979 Three Mile Island accident and thyroid cancer cases in south central Pennsylvania. The study marks the first time the partial meltdown can be connected to specific cancer cases, the researchers have said. The findings may pose a dramatic challenge to the nuclear energy industry's position that radiation released had no impact on human health."
There is disagreement on how harmful radiation is in general, and on how much was released during the TMI meltdown. Some even argue that low doses of radiation are good for us, a point of view popular in the trump administration.
All nuclear plants release radiation to air and water during normal operation, as do other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle such as uranium mining. Many nuclear plants have tall stacks intended to disperse "noncondensible" radioactive emissions. See one in pics of Xcel's Monticello nuke plant—three of this same General Electric design melted down in Japan in 2011. Evidence is accumulating that these releases from normal operations may have health impacts.
Some reports claim the only health effects from TMI were mental health impacts from stress.
The TMI meltdown ended expansion of the U.S. nuclear power industry—after TMI, no new reactors were ordered in the U.S. and many projects were stopped. Now, 40 years later, the remaining industry is collapsing, largely because wind and solar have become cheaper. The remaining TMI unit is to shut down this year.
But the nuke industry isn't going down without a fight, trying to rebrand itself as a climate change solution. In fact, the nuclear fuel cycle releases less climate-changing carbon dioxide than fossil fuel burning but much more than wind or solar (per unit of electricity generated).
It is timely to think about TMI in Minnesota as Xcel Energy is pushing with its many lobbyists to get an enormous subsidy for continued operation of its three reactors in Minnesota, which instead need to be recognized as financial and ecological burdens and shut down as soon as possible.
This contraction of the nuclear power industry won't be easy for people working in it, or for host communities like Red Wing and Monticello. But it will happen regardless and ultimately we will be safer and healthier for it. Let's face facts.
To ignore the human impacts of the nuclear industry is a moral failure.