30 years later: Do nuclear plants operate more safely?

February 13, 2009 12:47 pm         

The most serious accident in US commercial nuclear power history: people vs. government

By Nicole Back - Staff Writer

After three decades, the debate continues. [img_assist|nid=112|title=A crowd gathers near TMI after the 1979 accident. Many residents were demanding information.|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=72|height=50]


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission stands by its claim that the most serious accident in US commercial nuclear power history did not cause any physical harm to those who were directly affected.


Hundreds of people lived near Three Mile Island when equipment malfunctions, design related problems and worker errors led to the partial meltdown of the TMI-2 reactor core. Residents insist the US government is lying about what really happened to them.



“Here I am 30 years later and I’m absolutely astounded that they got away with murder,” Mary Osborne said.


Osborne lives six miles northwest of TMI.


“You could draw a line from my house to TMI,” she said. 


Osborne has been researching the accident and its effects on her and her neighbors ever since it happened. She takes pictures of mutated plants and animals, collects official documents and gives presentations in Washington, D.C. She has written separate letters to The Economist and Fortune Magazine. Her work was presented in Japan in 1987 and at DePaul University in Chicago in 2001.


“It’s just been a really, really life altering thing,” she said. “If you’re an activist you put your children’s lives on hold while you look for the truth.”


Osborne also is a member of Three Mile Island Alert, which is the oldest and largest nuclear watchdog group in central Penn. The group formed two years before the TMI accident.


TMIA has provided testimony to the US Senate, the NRC, Pennsylvania House of Representatives and Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission and has received a certificate of condemnation from several government bodies.


“Part of what we do is make sure we don’t repeat the mistakes in coal mining,” Eric Epstein, TMIA spokesman, said. “We’re here to make sure once they get started they clean up.”


TMIA maintains the accident at TMI is still affecting those who live in the area.


The 1979 accident at TMI is one of the best-studied cases of psycho logic response to disaster and evacuation. However, few studies initially focused on radiation exposure. After hundreds of people insisted they had radiation symptoms, several government organizations conducted studies.


“There was no impact on the public,” Diane Screni, spokeswoman for the NRC, said. “This certainly was a significant accident. There have been detailed studies that have shown the average dose to about two million people in the area was only about one millirem. The average American is exposed to 360 millirem each year from all sources.”


She was referring to studies that were conducted by the NRC, Environmental Protection Agency, the Dept. of Energy, Dept. of Health, Education and Welfare (now known as Health and Human Services) and the State of Pennsylvania.


“Most studies that were done were based on gamma radiation when actually they should have been based on alpha beta radiation,” Osborne said. “That really screwed up their documentation.”


According to an article published in The Sunday Patriot-News on October 6, 1985, the study of health effects as a result of TMI could have been flawed. The state Dept. of Health expanded survey areas beyond the ordered five and ten mile zones.


The studies indicated that, although cancer rates were increasing among people who lived near Three Mile Island at the time of the accident, the accident was not responsible because radiation exposures were too low.


A professor with the University of North Carolina School of Public Health led a study of cancer cases within 10 miles of the facility from 1975-85. Dr. Steven Wing’s findings were published in the Journal of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences in November 2003.


According to his report, hundreds of local residents questioned the NRC’s position that high-level radiation exposure as a result of TMI was impossible. People who lived near TMI reported metallic taste, nausea, vomiting diarrhea, erythema, hair loss, deaths of pets and farm and wild animals and damage to plants.


Osborne was one of those people. She kept a journal of her experiences.


An entry dated for Friday, March 30, 1979 describes the day that she and many of her neighbors refer to as Black Friday:


“…after hearing sirens, church bells and the radio news of uncontrolled radiation releases from Three Mile Island, we evacuated…We evacuated for eight days. Sometime later (I don’t remember how many days), while giving my two year old a bath, I noticed a ‘small wad’ of hair in the tub. His hair had thinned, you could see his scalp.”

She said she and the rest of her family, including her husband and daughter also experienced hair loss.


Dr. Wing does not believe smoking or social economic factors were the cause of any of these symptoms.


Residents were told that their symptoms were stress-related. Those who persisted to express their concerns about radiation exposure were treated as though they had psychological problems.


Nearly 5 percent of those who lived within five miles of the plant left during the first two days of the accident. After Governor Thornburgh’s March 30 order to evacuate pregnant women and children from the five mile area, nearly 50 percent of residents left.


Lung cancer and leukemia rates were two to 10 times higher downwind of the TMI reactor than upwind.


State Rep. Stephen Reed wrote a letter to Chairman Hendrie with the NRC. The letter is dated Aug. 8, 1979. 


In the letter, Rep. Reed questions, “Why is there a complete dismissal by the NRC of any immediate indications of exposure to levels of radiation higher than what were immediately thought the first dates of the accident? Psychosomatically induced ailments are possible with some, but not with hundreds or even more persons and I suggest this matter has been conveniently been laid aside.”


Reed currently serves as Harrisburg’s mayor.


“When you have classic radiation symptoms that people in Hiroshima and Nagasaki did, on TMI, that’s proof in my book that the radiation was happening there,” Osborne said.


Osborne has three radiation monitoring devices in her home. She bought them at the end of the 10-year cleanup.

“Almost every time the wind blew the monitor went off scale,” she said. “Lately I have not had any high readings as far as it going to the alarm set point, so that tells you that we were exposed for more than just a couple of days.”


The NRC stands by its claims.


“Following the accident I understand questions were raised about possible adverse effects from radiation,” Screni said. “Nothing can be directly correlated to the accident. The investigation and assessments were concluded while there was serious damage to the reactor there were negligible effects on individuals and environment.”


There are four nuclear power plants in N.J. State lawmakers approved legislation in 2002 asking the federal government to supply potassium iodide pills to all state residents living within a 50-mile radius of nuclear power plants.


The NRC gave the state enough pills for those living within 10 miles of the plants, according to the Press of Atlantic City.


An assemblyman who helped sponsor the legislation was disappointed that many residents living outside the 10-mile zone did not receive pills.


Assemblyman Jeff Van Drew said many people are still at risk if there is another nuclear meltdown because there are only two roads to take to evacuate. Almost all of New Jersey is within 50-miles of either the state’s nuclear plants or those of Pa. And N.Y.


Epstein said TMI represents a quarterstone event in Pennsylvania history, as well as the technological history of the country.


“Central Pennsylvania was a very conservative, rural, traditional area,” Epstein said. “The people were very trusting of the government. (TMI) was the biggest story reported. That type of blind faith has been erased.”


The TMI-2 reactor is permanently shut down and defueled. The reactor coolant system has been drained, the radioactive water decontaminated and evaporated and radioactive waste has been shipped off to an appropriate disposal site, according to the NRC. The reactor fuel and core debris has been shipped off-site to a Dept. of Energy facility and the remainder of the site is being monitored.


“Three Mile Island is a radioactive site that stands on an island in the middle of the river that just happens to empty into the Chesapeake Bay,” Epstein said.


He said the situation is unique because there are good relations between the community and TMI employees because the employees are community members.


“We used to be known for three things,” he said. “Hershey’s chocolate, the Gettysburg battle and the Amish. Now we’re also known for TMI. That puts a little damper on things.”


On December 3, 2002 The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit upheld the Summary Judgment of the United Sates District Court for the Middle District. Lawyers for 1,990 plaintiffs who claimed they suffered health damage from radiation released during the reactor meltdown gave up. The lawsuits were mostly against former TMI owner General Public Utilities Corp.


The last remaining TMI cases involve 17 businesses, including restaurants and lodging establishments, from Lancaster County. The businesses have claimed loss of business revenues.


To link to Mary Osborne's photo collection go to: www.tmia.com/old-website/photos/index.html


Do nuclear plants operate more safely than 30 years ago?




Morehead News - Morehead, KY,  -  The nation's most serious accident in US commercial nuclear power history led to sweeping changes involving emergency planning and radiation protection involving nuclear protection, according to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.


"The NRC heightened and tightened its oversight," Spokeswoman Diane Screni said. "Plants are operating more safely now than they were at that time."

She said there are two residential inspectors at every nuclear power site in the country.


"They're not there 24/7 but they are there at least five days a week," she said. "They can go anywhere and look at anything at any time. They are our eyes and ears at the site."

The nation's 104 nuclear power plants produce 20 percent of America's energy. All neighboring states, except Indiana and West Virginia have nuclear power plants.

Secretary of Gov. Steve Beshear's Energy and Environment Cabinet, Len Peters, said several nuclear power companies are interested in Kentucky for nuclear power plant sites.

"The purpose of a nuclear power plant is to produce electricity," Screni said. "At some point it becomes like any other electric generating facility. Essentially it boils water to produce steam and becomes like any other fossil plant. Steam spins the turbine. The turbine is used to produce electricity.


If you used coal, you would use coal to boil the water. In a nuclear power plant you use uranium fuel to get the water hot enough to produce steam."

Gov. Beshear said nuclear power is one option to help the state meet its energy needs. Kentucky law bans nuclear power construction until the country develops a permanent disposal site for radioactive nuclear waste.


"We live in a culture where we burden our grandchildren with debt and waste," said Eric Epstein, spokesman for Three Mile Island Alert, the oldest and largest nuclear watchdog group in central Penn. "It has to end."


He said his organization promotes safe-energy alternatives to nuclear power. TMIA watches the NRC closely since the TMI accident.

The NRC insists security conditions are better now than they were in the 70s. The accident happened on March 28, 1979.


"You look at Davis Besse and you'll find out they're lying," Mary Osborne, a 30-year TMIA activist, said.


Davis Besse is the fifth most dangerous nuclear power plant incident since TMI.


The Ohio power plant was shut down for a year after the discovery of deterioration of the reactor head.

The NRC maintains that, since the accident, it has enhanced oversight of maintenance at the plant. Davis Besse was fined and has since corrected the problems.

Former Davis Besse engineer Andrew Siemaszko was sentenced Feb. 6 to three years probation and ordered to pay $4,500 in fines for his role in the Ottawa County nuclear plant's massive cover up, according to an article published in The Toledo Blade. Government prosecutors have called the Davis Besse accident one of the most significant cover-ups in the nation's nuclear history.

Epstein is worried about the Peach Bottom Atomic Power Station in York County, Penn.


The Patriot-News reported on Jan. 13, 2008 that the NRC failed to catch guards who were sleeping on the job at Peach Bottom. The NRC disregarded a letter from a former Wackenhut security manager at TMI. The letter explained how it is possible for guards to sleep on the job.


After videotapes of the sleeping guards at Peach Bottom were made public, Exelon Corp. ended its contracts with Wackenhut. Exelon is the nation's largest nuclear energy company with 10 nuclear plants.

According to TMIA's website, the NRC did not cite Three Mile Island Unit 1 in 2008 for five violations after an inspection. One of the violations was a repetitive issue. The inspectors said the violations were of "very low safety significance."


"The NRC as a whole says plants are more effective and better operated but the industry hasn't been able to solve three riddles: where's the water going to come from, where is the waste going to, why is Wall Street sitting on the sidelines? Private equity is not interested in nuclear power," Epstein said.


"We are a regulation agency so we take no position on nuclear power," Screni said.