Three Mile Island at 29: Reactors and Infant Health
By John LaForge
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.
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