Commentary: The legacy of nuclear power is checkered at best

Forty years ago, on March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2 nuclear power reactor in central Pennsylvania — about 95 miles northwest of Dover — partially melted down and experienced at least one explosion.

Many of us living in Delaware at the time were very concerned about being downwind and somewhat downstream of a nuclear accident of unknown magnitude.

The causes were a combination of equipment failures, design defects and operator errors. The operators did not have accurate indications of what was going on in the reactor, so they couldn’t make the right decisions. Reportedly, more than half of the radiation monitors in the area were broken, so there was not adequate indication of how much radioactivity was released and where it went.

Days afterwards: “[Pa.] 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.”

Ever since the TMI meltdown, nuke industry sources and public health authorities have claimed that too little radioactivity was released to harm people’s health. For example, the so-called Nuclear Regulatory Commission says this 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.”

Failure to investigate TMI health effects was published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 2004. This included failure to investigate, media blackouts and the firing of Pennsylvania Health Commissioner Gordon MacLeod by Gov. Thornburgh after he pointed out increases in infant mortality and other health problems near TMI.

Jane Lee, a local farmer, with others, went door-to-door 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 publication of her work, and wasn’t online A deposit of Jane Lee Papers at Dickenson College (Carlisle, Pa.) may hold some of this information.

More recently in 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.”

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 are good for us, a point of view popular in the Trump administration.

All nuclear plants release radiation to air and water during normal operation, as do other parts of the nuclear fuel cycle such as uranium mining. Many nuclear plants have tall stacks intended to disperse “noncondensible” radioactive emissions. See one in pictures of the Peach Bottom nuclear plant — three of this same General Electric design melted down in Japan in 2011. Evidence is accumulating that these releases from normal operations may have health impacts.

Some reports claim the only health effects from TMI were mental health impacts from stress, as if “mental health impacts” were unimportant.

The TMI meltdown ended expansion of the U.S. nuclear power industry — after TMI, no new reactors were ordered in the U.S. and many projects were stopped.

Now, 40 years later, the remaining industry is collapsing, largely because wind and solar have become cheaper. The remaining TMI unit is to shut down this year. But the nuke industry isn’t going down without a fight, trying to rebrand itself as a climate change solution. In fact, the nuclear fuel cycle releases less climate-changing carbon dioxide than fossil-fuel burning but much more than wind or solar (per unit of electricity generated).

It is timely to think about TMI as Delaware is surrounded by nuclear power reactors. About 10 percent of all those in the U.S. are within 50 miles of Delaware. The Salem/Hope Creek reactors, the nearest, have recently received an enormous subsidy from the state of New Jersey to stay open. On the other hand, the Oyster Creek, N.J., reactor has closed.

This contraction of the nuclear power industry won’t be easy for people working in it, or for some of the nuclear host communities. But it will happen regardless and ultimately we will be safer and healthier for it.

To ignore the human impacts of the nuclear industry is a moral failure.

Alan Muller is executive director of Green Delaware.

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