Nowhere to Run after TMI

In January 2012 I was interviewed on Corbett Report Radio by independent radio journalist James Corbett (see also his blog Fukushima Update). After the interview, I thought of dozens of ways I could have answered the questions better, and one such question that stuck with me, before this interview and afterward, is: Why do you stay in Japan? I have never felt that I have a satisfactory answer for myself or for others.

President Carter touring the TMI-2 control room, April Fools Day, 1979
This week I came across a series of radio documentaries on nuclear issues aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation in the 1990s. In part 3 of this series (Counting the Costs – Chalk River to Chernobyl), there was an interview with Jane Lee, a farmer from Etters, Pennsylvania, who became active in various public-awareness groups following the accident at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Station on March 28, 1979. In this short interview (transcribed below), she gives the best answer I can think of to the “why I stay” question:

70% of the core has been compromised, and they are in a process now of grinding up the core to remove it from the reactor [a process which lasted until 1990], and as they do that, of course, they are constantly having emissions coming from the plant.The infant mortality rate in this area doubled. But what is even more alarming than that is the enormous increase in cancer deaths in children in the four counties surrounding Three Mile Island. Compared to the numbers previous to the accident that the health department listed even just on leukemia.

We have done an in-depth report on plant life where we are seeing many mutations… All the birds on the farm disappeared. It looked like winter. And not only did we see complete defoliation, we saw trees that were defoliated at different levels.

Interviewer: Why do you stay here?

I think that most people can understand when you talk about roots. You set down roots in a community. And you are part of that community. That’s one reason, but the main reason that we will not move is because we went to a map and we looked and there’s no place to run. There is no place to run. The United States right now is operating 101 nuclear power plants – that’s commercial plants. We’re also operating university reactors, we’re also operating military reactors, and then you have the processing plants, and the processing plants are the worst violators of all because they are dumping tons, and I say tons, of uranium dust into the atmosphere. So if you move from here – here you know what you’ve got – even if you’re living in danger – you know what’s here. We know what came out of the plant now, and so, why do we want to run some place and start the process all over?

50% of the people in this area left. They sold their properties and they went. And you know what happened? They’re just as close, or almost as close to a reactor as where they left here. So it’s futile to think that you’re going to escape this. You have to stand your ground. You have to do your research and you have to challenge your government and say you cannot continue to do this because you’re going to kill this planet.

This population [in the Three Mile Island area] is very passive and very conservative. Most of the people in this area don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to read about it. They simply know, and they have a feeling of helplessness about their own government. Now, we’re not talking about Russia. We’re talking about the good old USA.

Whether Jane Lee's answer is sensible depends on the level of contamination one is living with. In heavily contaminated areas it would make no sense to stay, but for people who are in areas of lighter contamination, and for whom the initial blast of iodine 131 and xenon 135 (now decayed away) can't be undone, the decision is not so clear cut. Sometimes it makes more sense to take precautions with food, monitor the health of people around you, and, like she says, "stand your ground."

Further information about the work of Jane Lee appears in various reports about the Three Mile Island accident–-a word which the CBC report suggests should be replaced with something that means "an unfortunate event foreseeable because of previously known hazards."

In the article People Died at Three Mile Island, Harvey Wasserman describes how the TMI operator, and the Pennsylvania and US government downplayed the consequences of the accident and reneged on promises to carry out thorough health studies. He states, "… the most reliable studies were conducted by local residents like Jane Lee and Mary Osborne, who went door-to-door in neighborhoods where the fallout was thought to be worst. Their surveys showed very substantial plagues of cancer, leukemia, birth defects, respiratory problems, hair loss, rashes, lesions and much more."

Such research has been routinely dismissed with pejorative connotations by the word “anecdotal.” If hundreds of people in an area report the sudden onset of health problems after a nuclear accident, but the researcher is deemed to be just an unqualified farmer-activist (not participating in officially sanctioned research), the findings are treated contemptuously with such zingers as "the plural of anecdote is not data." Actually, the plural of anecdote in much academic research is data. If you describe your symptoms to a citizen mobilizing her own research project, you are telling anecdotes. If you describe your symptoms to an approved researcher, you’re giving data.

Wasserman also cites the work of Arnie Gundersen, a nuclear engineer who left the industry in order to pursue anti-nuclear work. He quotes Gundersen as saying, "When I correctly interpreted the containment pressure spike and the doses measured in the environment after the TMI accident, I proved that TMI's releases were about one hundred times higher than the industry and the NRC claim, in part because the containment leaked. This new data supports the epidemiology of Dr. Steve Wing and proves that there really were injuries from the accident.” Dr. Wing’s findings have been rejected by many because they were inconsistent with what was believed to be the possible effects of the known releases from TMI. This inconsistency disappears if Gundersen is correct that the releases were a hundred times higher than previously thought.

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