People Were Killed by Three Mile Island and Other Nuclear Disasters

One of the biggest lies ever told in American industrial history is that "no one died at Three Mile Island."

In the frenzy to get public funding for still more nuclear reactors, some industry backers now say no one has ever been killed by the nuclear industry AT ALL.

These absurd statements reflect atomic energy's desperate need for federal loan guarantees, which have been slipped into the Energy Bill now before Congress. After fifty years of proven failure, no private sources will invest in this lethal, expensive technology.

Meanwhile billions are pouring into the booming business of green power, including wind, solar power and increased efficiency. These technologies are not only profitable and clean, they don't kill people.

And the reality is that people have, in fact, been killed by the fallout from atomic power, and not just at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.

At the very birth of fission technology, Lewis Slotin, a top researcher on the Manhattan Project, was fatally irradiated in an early experiment. Patriotic workers were exposed to high radiation doses while building the bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the 1950s, a critical accident struck a reactor at Chalk River, Canada. Scores of American "jumpers" were run into the plant to do clean-up work and then run out. One was the future president Jimmy Carter, who joked about the incident in his autobiography "Why Not the Best."

In 1961, three workers were killed at the SL-1 plant in Idaho. One was pinned to the ceiling of the containment dome by a fuel rod that shot out of the reactor core. The men's bodies were classified as high level radioactive waste, and were buried in lead casks.

On October 5, 1966, a critical blockage brought Michigan's Fermi I fast breeder reactor to the brink of disaster. Fermi's owners said the $100 million accident released no radiation. But for a month state authorities prepared to evacuate Detroit.

The entire history of atomic energy is defined by radiation releases that the industry has covered up. Today, nothing reactor owners say can be believed. At both Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, elaborate official studies done before the accidents "proved" that it was "impossible" for what then did happen to occur. The term "inherently safe" had been applied to reactors that proved very much otherwise. Today that same term is being used to describe the "new generation" of plants to be underwitten by these proposed guarantees.

In the late 1960s, Dr. John Gofman was asked to evaluate the killing power of so-called "normal" releases from America's fleet of atomic reactors.

Gofman was a towering figure. He was instrumental in developing the atomic bomb. As a medical doctor, his breakthrough discoveries in heart disease and LDL cholesterol are still in use.

Dr. Gofman was chief of health research at the Atomic Energy Commission. But he discovered that regular radiation emissions from America's nukes would kill 32,000 citizens per year, even without an accident or terror attack.

The industry demanded Gofman change his findings. When he refused, he was fired. He spent the rest of his life warning that Americans were being killed every day by the ever-growing fleet of US reactors.

In 1979, human error caused the melt-down at Three Mile Island Unit Two. The reactor's owners immediately denied there was any melting of fuel. This was a lie. Robotic cameras later showed that at least a third of the fuel had melted.

The owners said there was never a danger of a major catastrophe. That was a lie. The plant was very much at the brink of an apocalyptic radiation release.

The owners ridiculed those---among them Pennsylvania's Secretary of Health---who desperately warned that local citizens should be evacuated, especially to protect pregnant women and small children. The governor finally ordered just such an evacuation, but later fired his long-time friend at the Department of Health, who had advocated the evacuation, and who warned of damage from TMI's stealth radioactive fallout.

TMI's owners denied that its releases harmed anyone. But the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has admitted to Congress that nobody knows how much radiation escaped or where it went.

Official statistics showed a huge jump in infant death rates in Harrisburg in the three months after the accident compared to the numbers for the previous two years. State statistics showing heightened cancer rates were quickly altered. The state's tumor registry was abolished. Evidence showing downwind health effects was suppressed.

But an investigative team from the Baltimore News-Herald uncovered a massive epidemic of death and disease among the area's farm and wild animals.

In early 1980, I reported from ground zero on a ghastly epidemic of human death and disease. Based on a horrifying series of house-to-house interviews, I found cancer, heart attacks, respiratory problems, skin lesions, cataracts, a metallic taste in the mouth, hair loss, birth defects and everything else you'd expect from a major radiation release was everywhere to be found.

With three other researchers, I spent two years investigating these and other parallel epidemics at nuclear facilities throughout the United States. Our findings were published in 1982 by Dell/Delta in a book called Killing Our Own that showed a similar death toll throughout the nuclear fuel cycle---especially at uranium mines, mills and enrichment facilities---and at weapons production plants, waste storage pools and much more.

At TMI, 2400 central Pennsylvania families filed a class action lawsuit seeking justice. But the federal courts have never allowed their case to be heard.

Studies by Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina have confirmed the TMI death toll. Researcher Joe Mangano and others have used the government's own statistics to show a heightened cancer rate in the region. Parallel studies have correlated radioactive emissions with infant death rates, cancer rates and other health epidemics around other operating reactors.

But the industry's response is always the same. Anyone who shows that reactors kill people is automatically "discredited," even if their credentials, like those of Dr. Gofman, dwarf those of their attackers.

Even at an obvious catastrophe like Chernobyl, the deniers are out in force. The radiation releases at this unprecedented explosion far exceeded what was released at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

By all accounts, the plague that darkened central Pennsylvania after TMI was exponentially exceeded for thousands of downwind square miles in the Ukraine and other nearby nations of the former Soviet Union. The cancers, birth defects and other radioactive plagues have duplicated on a far larger scale what had already happened in the US in 1979.

Today, with billions in bailout dollars on the line, there is big money to be made in saying that atomic reactors have harmed no one.

But the truth is less convenient. Nuclear power kills people. From the Manhattan Project to TMI, from Chalk River to Chernobyl, even "normal" operations can be lethal.

Solar power, wind energy, bio-fuels, increased conservation---these sources are safe and clean. They don't create radioactive emissions or wastes, and will not be potential terror targets.

Nor do they need federal loan guarantees. Unlike atomic energy, green power is profitable for the entire community.

And unlike Three Mile Island, we will never have to evacuate wind farms or solar panels while their owners lie about what's really going down.

Harvey Wasserman edits and is senior editor of

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