UNDERNEWS

Undernews is the online report of the Progressive Review, edited by Sam Smith, who has covered Washington during all or part of one quarter of America's presidencies and edited alternative journals since 1964. The Review has been on the web since 1995. See main page for full contents

April 3, 2009

THE HIDDEN STORY OF THREE MILE ISLAND

Facing South - It was 30 years ago when Randall Thompson first set foot inside the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pa. Just four days earlier, in the early morning hours of March 28, a relatively minor problem in the plant's Unit 2 reactor sparked a series of mishaps that led to the meltdown of almost half the uranium fuel and uncontrolled releases of radiation into the air and surrounding Susquehanna River.

It was the single worst disaster ever to befall the U.S. nuclear power industry, and Thompson was hired as a health physics technician to go inside the plant and find out how dangerous the situation was. He spent 28 days monitoring radiation releases.

Today, his story about what he witnessed at Three Mile Island is being brought to the public in detail for the first time - and his version of what happened during that time, supported by a growing body of other scientific evidence, contradicts the official U.S. government story that the Three Mile Island accident posed no threat to the public.

"What happened at TMI was a whole lot worse than what has been reported," Randall Thompson told Facing South. "Hundreds of times worse."

Thompson and his wife, Joy, a nuclear health physicist who also worked at TMI in the disaster's aftermath, claim that what they witnessed there was a public health tragedy. The Thompsons also warn that the government's failure to acknowledge the full scope of the disaster is leading officials to underestimate the risks posed by a new generation of nuclear power plants.

While new reactor construction ground to a halt after the 1979 incident, state leaders and energy executives today are pushing for a nuclear energy revival that's centered in the South, where 12 of the 17 facilities seeking new reactors are located. . .

Randall Thompson could never be accused of being a knee-jerk anti-nuclear alarmist. A veteran of the U.S. Navy's nuclear submarine program, he is a self-described "nuclear geek" who after finishing military service jumped at the chance to work for commercial nuclear power companies. . .

The moment the Thompsons heard about the TMI incident, they wanted to get inside the plant and see what was happening first-hand. That didn't prove difficult: Plant operator Metropolitan Edison's in-house health physics staff fled after the incident began, so responsibility for monitoring radioactive emissions went to a private contractor called Rad Services.

The company immediately hired Randall Thompson to serve as the health physics technician in charge of monitoring radioactive emissions, while Joy Thompson got a job monitoring radiation doses to TMI workers.

"I had other health physicists from around the country calling me saying, 'Don't let it melt without me!" Randall Thompson recalls. "It was exciting. Our attitude was, 'Sure I may get some cancer, but I can find out some cool stuff.'"

What the Thompsons say they found out during their time inside TMI suggests radiation releases from the plant were hundreds if not thousands of times higher than the government and industry have acknowledged - high enough to cause the acute health effects documented in people living near the plant but that have been dismissed by the industry and the government as impossible given official radiation dose estimates.

The Thompsons tried to draw attention to their findings and provide health information for people living near the plant, but what they say happened next reads like a John Grisham thriller.

They tell of how a stranger approached Randall Thompson in a grocery store parking lot in late April 1979 and warned him his life was at risk, leading the family to flee Pennsylvania. How they ended up in New Mexico working on a book about their experiences with the help of Joy's brother Charles Busey, another nuclear Navy vet and a former worker at the Hatch nuclear power plant in Georgia. How one evening while driving home from the store Busey and Randall Thompson were run off the road, injuring Thompson and killing Busey. How a copy of the book manuscript they were working on was missing from the car's trunk after the accident. These allegations were detailed in several newspaper accounts back in 1981. . .

The evidence that people, animals and plants near TMI were exposed to high levels of radiation in the 1979 disaster is not merely anecdotal. While government studies of the disaster as well as a number of independent researchers assert the incident caused no harm, other surveys and studies have also documented health effects that point to a high likelihood of significant radiation exposures.

In 1984, for example, psychologist Marjorie Aamodt and her engineer husband, Norman - owners of an organic dairy farm east of Three Mile Island who got involved in a lawsuit seeking to stop TMI from restarting its Unit 1 reactor - surveyed residents in three hilltop neighborhoods near the plant. Dozens of neighbors reported a metallic taste, nausea, vomiting and hair loss as well as illnesses including cancers, skin and reproductive problems, and collapsed organs - all associated with radiation exposure. Among the 450 people surveyed, there were 19 cancer deaths reported between 1980 and 1984 - more than seven times what would be expected statistically. . .

With more than $18 billion in federal subsidies at stake, 17 companies are seeking federal licenses to build a total of 26 nuclear reactors across the country, the first applications since the 1979 disaster. . .

Harold Denton, a retired NRC official who worked in Three Mile Island during the crisis, recently told Greenwire that changes made after the 1979 disaster "significantly reduced the overall risks of a future serious accident." But the Thompsons . . . point out that the standards the NRC is applying to the new generation of nuclear plants are influenced by assumptions about what happened at Three Mile Island. They say the NRC's low estimates of radiation exposure have resulted in inadequate requirements for safety and containment protocols as well as the size of the evacuation zones around nuclear plants. . .

Given their personal experiences, the Thompsons warn that we may be fooling ourselves into believing nuclear power is safer than evidence and history suggest.

"Once you realize how deep and broad the realignment of facts about TMI has been, it becomes really pretty amazing," Randall Thompson says. "I guess that's what it takes to protect this industry."

FULL STORY

2 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The other story that has never been properly told is of the decades of virtual enslavement to the mining industry of the people of NEPA along the Susquehanna, whose waters ran acid-orange.
And of the goons who still sit on the boards. . .

April 6, 2009 1:06 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lots of things that make me think: "citation needed..."
The "in-house health physics staff fled" ? really? How many were there, how many quit?
What levels of which isotopes were found in what species of vegetation?
I worked in nuclear plants, Navy and civilian, and I never EVER read a single news article that accurately reported an event or issue at a nuclear plant. Thanks for keeping that record intact.

April 7, 2009 10:28 AM  

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