Three Mile Island at 29: Reactors and Infant Health
Today marks 29 years since the partial meltdown and radiation disaster at Three Mile Island (TMI) near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.News accounts noted the reactor's loss-of-coolant, fuel melting, multiple explosions, venting of radioactive gases, dumping of contaminated water and the buildup of explosive hydrogen inside the reactor vessel. The accident caused such a nationwide scare that the expansion of nuclear power ended in the United States.
Yet the environmental and health consequences of the TMI disaster aren't widely understood. Official cover-ups, industry propaganda, and ignorance of radiation-induced illnesses have led to present-day trivialization of TMI and a supposed revival of reactor construction. Any such revival is totally dependent on billions in federal subsidies included in the recent energy bill, because, as Forbes magazine blazoned across its cover: "The failure of the U.S. nuclear power program ranks as the largest managerial disaster in business history, a disaster on a monumental scale."
The nuclear industry's attempt to raise nuclear power from the dead involves denying the damage resulting from TMI itself and flies in the face of 25 years of science regarding the effects of low-dose radiation. One Wisconsin legislator said on the record last December, "Three Mile Island was a success of containment."
Things weren't much different in 1979. President Carter's Kemeny Commission hurriedly finished its report on the disaster issuing it in Oct. 1979. The commission did not consider any data on the effects of wind-borne radiation, although the wind blew 6-to-9 mph toward upstate New York and western Pennsylvania.
Over 10 million curies of radioactive noble gases including 43,000 curies of krypton-85 -- which stays in the environment for 100 years -- as well as 15-to-24 curies of radioactive iodine-131, were vented from the "containment" building. (A curie -- 37 billion disintegrations per second -- is a huge amount of radiation.) As the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) later noted, several "deliberate but uncontrolled releases" were used to vent radioactive gas. Official airborne release estimates are just guesses, because of the insufficient number of outside radiation monitors half weren't working, and a large number of them went off-scale.
On the third day of the venting of these gases, half the population within 15 miles -- 144,000 people -- fled the area. By this time the bulk of the accident's airborne radiation was already spewed and drifting on the wind.
In addition, approximately 400,000 gallons of radioactive cooling water that had leaked from the reactor were secretly dumped into the Susquehanna River, a source of drinking water for nearby communities. Later about 2.3 million gallons of radioactively contaminated cooling water were allowed to be "evaporated" into the atmosphere.
In 1980, Pennsylvania State Health Department authorities reported a sharp rise in hypothyroidism in newborn infants in the three counties downwind from the reactor. Late in 1979, four times as many infants as normal were born with the disease. The NRC said the increase was unrelated to radiation released by TMI. Upwind incidence of the disease had dropped to below the national average.
The same year, six workers entered the heavily contaminated reactor building. Five of the six later died of radiation-induced cancers. David Lochbaum of the Union of Concerned Scientists reports that UCS opposed license renewal for the surviving TMI units and demanded health studies for neighbors. The NRC refused.
In the county where TMI is located infant deaths soared 53.7 percent in the first month after the accident; 27 percent in the first year. As originally published, the federal government's own Monthly Vital Statistics Report shows a statistically significant rise in infant and over-all mortality rates shortly after the accident.
Studying 10 counties closest to TMI, Jay M. Gould, in his meticulously documented 1990 book Deadly Deceit, found that childhood cancers, other infant diseases, and deaths from birth defects were 15% to 35% higher than before the accident, and those from breast cancer 7% higher. These increases far exceeded those elsewhere in Pennsylvania.
Gould suggests that between 50,000 and 100,000 excess deaths occurred after the TMI accident. Joseph Mangano of the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) says, "The NRC allows reactors to emit a certain level of radiation, but it does not do follow-up studies to see if there are excessive infant deaths, birth defects or cancers."
Leukemia deaths among kids fewer than 10 years of age (between 1980 and 1984) jumped almost 50 percent compared to the national rate.
Mangano reports that "between 1980 and 1984, death rates in the three nearest counties were considerably higher than 1970-74 (before the reactor opened) for leukemia, female breast, thyroid and bone and joint cancers."
The Spring 2000 edition of Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology Mangano and Ernest Sternglass reported that in counties adjacent to nuclear reactors, infant mortality falls dramatically after the reactors close. The RPHP study found that in the first two years after the reactors were shuttered, infant death rates fell 15-to-20 percent. In communities near Big Rock Point in Michigan for example, the decrease in infant mortality rates was 54 percent; at Maine Yankee, the percentage decrease was 33.4 %.
The evidence of cancers caused by reactor operations brings to mind the words of Roger Mattson, former Director of NRC Division of Systems Safety, who said during the TMI meltdown, "I'm not sure why you are not moving people. I don't know what we are protecting at this point."
John LaForge is on the staff of Nukewatch, an environmental action group in Wisconsin, and edits its quarterly newsletter. His articles on nuclear power, weapons and waste have appeared in New Internationalist, Z Magazine, Earth Island Journal, The Progressive, the opinion page of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and elsewhere.