40 years on, have we learned the lessons of Three Mile Island?

Monticello nuke plant with tall stack for venting radioactives.

[Note: A version of this distributed by email had the wrong title. Apologies!]

40 years ago, on March 28, 1979, Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2 nuclear power plant melted down and experienced a hydrogen explosion.  (Unit 1 has continued to run all these years but likely will be shut down soon as it loses a lot of money for the owners.) 

Days afterwards: “Governor 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.”

The cause was a combination of equipment failures, design defects, and operator errors.

This event terminated expansion of the US nuclear power industry–after TMI, no reactors were ordered in the US and many reactor projects were never completed.  Now, 40 years later, the remaining nuclear industry is collapsing, largely because wind and solar have become cheaper.  But the nuke industry isn’t going down without a fight, trying to rebrand itself as a climate change solution (it isn’t).

It is timely to think about TMI as Xcel Energy is conniving with legislators to get an enormous subsidy for the continued operation of its three reactors in Minnesota, which instead need to be recognized as burdens and shut down as soon as possible.

At the time of the TMI meltdown, I was living downwind and downstream.  TMI units 1 and 2 are just south of Harrisburg, on the Susquehanna River in central Pennsylvania.  The Susquehanna feeds into the top of Chesapeake Bay, and has several nuclear reactors along its banks.  Nuclear power plants tend to use significantly more cooling water than fossil fuel power plants, so they tend to be built along rivers and shorelines.  So, a major radioactive release into the river could extensively contaminate the Bay, just as the radioactive payloads of Prairie Island and Monticello, along with other riverside nukes, could contaminate the Mississippi River drainage basin and the Gulf of Mexico.

Ever since the TMI meltdown, nuke industry sources have claimed that too little radioactivity was released to harm peoples’ health.  For example, this is what the so-called Nuclear Regulatory Commission says about TMI:

“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.”

Fifteen years ago, in 2004, I attended a rally/protest on the 25th anniversary of the 1979 meltdown.  It was a cool, rainy day in central Pennsylvania.  Many people from the area spoke about the impact on their lives.  They were eloquent, and one had a sense that thousands of peoples’ live had been disrupted.  (It has been claimed that the only health impacts were on peoples’ mental health due to stress.)

The more difficult questions have revolved around how much radiation was actually released and how were people and animals harmed by it.  Many at the 25th anniversary seemed to have more-or-less given up trying to establish that people had been poisoned by radioactivity.  But information continues to leak out and new analytical techniques have been developed.

Background factors to note up front:

There is a huge nuclear industry, and the nuclear weapons (“defense”) part makes common cause with the nuclear power branch.  Many US Government agencies–Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Department of Energy, etc–are joined at the hip to one or both.

These industries and agencies are commonly able to influence, if not control outright, work done in academic institutions.  Scientists whose results raise questions about nuclear safety have often found their funding going away, and/or publication restricted.  Many activists and honest investigators have been investigated, harassed, ridiculed, blacked out, fired….

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, and sometimes chemical toxins, are good for us.  it should be no surprise that this point of view is popular in the trump administration

We do know that all nukes release radiation to air and water during normal operations.  Many nukes have tall stacks intended to disperse “noncondensible” radioactive emissions.  You can see one in pics of Xcel’s Monticello nuke plant –three of this same General Electric design melted down in Japan in 2011.

This Canadian review paper summarizes evidence as of 2009, concluding “In summary, studies done in Europe and Great Britain, particularly the more recent ones with improved methodology and larger sample size, show evidence that there may be increases in malignant and inheritable disease in the vicinities of nuclear facilities. Low level radiation exposures remain a plausible cause of these effects.”

The best commentary I have found on the general failure to investigate TMI health effects was published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists around the time of the 25th anniversary.  This notes the failure to investigate, media blackouts, and the firing of  Pennsylvania Health Commissioner Gordon MacLeod by Gov. Richard Thornburgh after he pointed out increases in infant mortality and other health problems near the plant.

This online book, KILLING OUR OWN –The Disaster of America’s Experience with Atomic Radiation  contains a lot of information as of 1982.  For instance:  Discussions of alleged health effects and firing of PA health commissionerSee here for reported effects on animals.

There were not enough working radiation monitors in and around TMI to give reliable information on radiation releases and where they went.  Reportedly more than half the monitors were out of service.

Jane Lee, a local farmer, with others, did door-to-door surveys and said they had found and documented many acute health problems.  I knew Jane towards the end of her life.  She’d been unable to arrange conventional publication of her work, and wasn’t very interested in putting it online.  There is a deposit of Jane Lee Papers at Dickenson College (Carlisle, PA) and a search of them could be interesting.

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.”

A radioactive judge?

This week, Cindy Folkers of Beyond Nuclear alleges that Federal Judge Sylvia Rambo issued a “gag order” limiting research funded by a “TMI Public Health Fund”

“If a researcher wanted to conduct a study using money from this Fund, they had to obey two main parameters set forth by Federal Judge Sylvia Rambo, who was in charge of the Fund. Those studying the health impact of Three Mile Island radiation emissions were prohibited from assessing ‘worst case estimates’ of radiation releases unless such estimates would lead to a conclusion of insignificant amount of harm — that being ‘less than 0.01 health effects’.  If a researcher wanted to claim more harm or investigate a worst-case scenario, an expert selected by nuclear industry insurers would have to ‘concur on the nature and scope of the [dosimetry] projects.'”

I don’t have independent confirmation of this but the record does show that the same Judge Rambo “dismissed a class action lawsuit alleging that the accident caused health effects.”  The dismissal was upheld by the 3rd Circuit.

OK, why does this matter to us now?

Minnesota has had a strong anti-nuclear movement. It was unable to prevent the building of three power reactors in the state, almost fifty years ago, but did influence radiation exposure standards and other precautionary mesures.  Now, the nuclear power industry is collapsing because its costs are no longer competitive.  The sooner these reactors are closed down, the less expensive our power will be, the sooner real energy transition will happen, and the safer we will be from routine radiation releases and the threat of nuclear accidents such as TMI or worse.  (But, “decommissioning” of the three reactors will still cost billions and no one knows what to do with the spent fuel and other radioactive wastes.)

TMI Unit 1, running all these years since TMI 2 melted down, is supposed to close later this year.  It’s a “merchant” plant selling power into a competitive marketplace and the nuke power is too expensive to compete.

The Minnesota reactors belong To Xcel, an almost-unregulated monopoly that usually operates several clever steps ahead of elected officials, reporters, and regulators.  Kissing up to Xcel seems to be a favored activity in Minnesota. (See a previous post.)

muchXcel can bury the actual costs of its three nukes in bogus “resource plans” at the Public Utilities Commission while at the same time seeking huge subsidies from the Legislature based on “carbon free” electricity claims. “Connecting the dots” is disfavored. Not a few Minnesotans are confused by these claims and unsure what to think.  The truth:   Nuclear electricity is both very expensive and much higher carbon emitting than solar or wind power

Only a small part of the carbon emissions comes from the power plants directly; most of it is from other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle, especially uranium mining.

To ignore facts, and history,  invites repetition of bad decisions.  To ignore the human impacts of the nuclear industry is a huge moral failure.

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  1. Viewpoint: Lessons from Three Mile Island aren’t over | alanmuller.com - April 8, 2019

    […] Note: This was published in the Red Wing Republican Eagle on April 5, 2019. It is a shorter version of this previous post. […]

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