Remembering the Three Mile Island Meltdown

Thirty years ago, the word "meltdown" was seared into the American consciousness when the Unit 2 reactor at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, PA melted the radioactive fuel rods in the core of the reactor and began leaking radiation into the environment in the early morning hours of March 28, 1979.

Radiation leaked from the damaged reactor for days as government regulators scrambled to get radiation monitoring equipment into surrounding communities. The Governor of Pennsylvania eventually ordered an evacuation of pregnant women and children. The accident at Three Mile Island sent the nuclear industry into a tailspin. Already staggering under the weight of over $100 billion dollars in cost overruns, the meltdown showed Americans that not only was nuclear power expensive - it was also dangerous. The nuclear industry turned a multi-million dollar asset into a multi-billion dollar liability overnight, and demonstrated that both the government and industry were thoroughly unprepared for the accident and its aftermath.

But now that memories of the meltdown and the ensuing panic have faded, the nuclear industry and those in their employ are claiming that that Three Mile Island was really a success story and that the radiation was contained.

Remarkable! When you're being paid to promote a "nuclear renaissance," I suppose you have to dispose of some problematic facts. Contrary to the claims of the nuclear lobby, the Three Mile Island accident spewed radiation into the environment for days and crippled the U.S. nuclear industry. The question that has persisted since the accident isn't whether radiation was released but how much radiation was released.

Even the Nuclear Regulatory Commission's (NRC) fact sheet on the Three Mile Island accident acknowledges that the meltdown resulted in a significant release of radiation. According to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 10 million curies of radiation escaped the damaged reactor core (a "curie" is a unit of radioactivity that denotes how many radioactive atoms in a particular collection of atoms are giving off radiation; 1 curie = 37 billion atoms giving off radiation). However, independent and unbiased nuclear engineers who reexamined the accident estimate that as much as 150 million curies of radiation may have escaped to the environment.

According to government reports on the accident, the radiation monitors went off scale before 8:00 a.m. on March 28, eliminating the only direct means of assessing the quantities and rate of release of radiation from the reactor. This information was vital to an accurate evaluation of the consequences of the meltdown.

The Department of Energy (DOE) later dispatched a helicopter to take measurements in the radioactive cloud escaping the damaged reactor core. The radiation detected by the DOE's helicopter indicated that the atomic plume could be detected out to a distance of 16 miles from the reactor. Yet the nuclear industry and their lobbyists would have the public believe that the release of as much as 150 million of curies of radiation into the communities near Three Mile Island was without consequence. Don't believe it.

Despite the government and nuclear industry denials, a peer-reviewed study conducted in 1997 by Dr. Steven Wing of the University of North Carolina found that lung cancer and leukemia rates downwind from Three Mile Island were two to ten times higher than cancer rates upwind of the accident.

Even the nuclear cheerleaders at the NRC acknowledge that "exposure to any level of radiation is assumed to carry with it a certain amount of risk." The scientific community generally assumes that any exposure to ionizing radiation may cause undesirable biological effects and that the likelihood of these effects increases as the dose increases. The NRC's fact sheet on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation states that, "any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect, and that the risk is higher for higher radiation exposures." There is no such thing as a "safe" dose of radiation.

On this 30th anniversary of the accident at Three Mile Island, it's important that we remember the meltdown and its aftermath. As nuclear corporations attempt to resell reactors as clean and safe, we must remember that Three Mile Island revealed the truth about the nuclear industry. Not only is nuclear power expensive; it's also dangerous and deadly.

- Jim Riccio is the Nuclear Policy Analyst for Greenpeace in Washington, DC.

More information on the abysmal economics and dangers of nuclear power can be found on the Greenpeace web site.

The government documents referenced in this article can not be found on the NRC's web site but have been posted online by Dickinson College.