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Wednesday, September 25, 2013


At 4:00 a.m. on March 28, 1979, workers at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Facility were clearing a blockage in a cleaning filter when the pumps being used stopped dead. A valve was stuck and would not open. Water supplying the steam generators ceased flowing. At this point things were still under control, but procedures dictated that an emergency shutdown routine was to be initiated. Control rods were inserted into the core to halt the nuclear chain reaction, but the reactor continued to produce heat.

Later it was discovered that the emergency auxiliary pumps had been closed for maintenance in violation of the standard NRC procedure which says that a reactor cannot be operated when the emergency pumps are shut off for maintenance. Additionally, control panel lights did not indicate the true position of the valves so operators were not able to determine the problem or take appropriate action.

By 7:30 a.m., a general emergency was announced to the public. People were told that a “small release of radiation” had occurred but that there was no increase from normal levels. In reality, the reactor temperatures were near the melting point and half of the uranium fuel had already melted by 8:00 a.m.

Schools were closed and people were advised to stay inside their homes. The next day an evacuation zone was established at 20 miles. Pregnant women and young children were the first to be evacuated. Most people didn’t return to their homes for about three weeks.

Nuclear mishaps are grouped into two broad categories: incidents and accidents. An “incident,” which has 3 levels (1 to 3), involves radiation release above 10 times the annual safe exposure, and has a lower probability of significant public exposure. San Onofre Reactor (San Diego) had a level 3 incident in 2011.

 An “accident,” which has 4 levels (4 to 7), is a major release of radioactive material with widespread health and environmental effects. The possibility of loss of life and property damage is high. Chernobyl (1986, level 7), Fukushima (2011, level 7), and Three Mile Island (1979, level 5) are examples of an accident. 

Three Mile Island (an "accident") was a near miss; but a partial meltdown none the less. People in the surrounding communities had been frightened and confused by the contradictory information being disseminated, and to what extent their health was jeopardized. There were few physical injuries, but mental health is as important as physical health. Poor mental health will, over time, lead to physical problems and social and family dysfunction. A Presidential Commission later found that high levels of depression, anxiety, and somatic symptoms like headaches were experienced across the population (of nearly 660,000).
Dr. Evelyn Bromet is recognized as a “Distinguished Professor” in her position with the State University of New York. She is an expert on the psychiatric effects of disasters and has researched the Three Mile Island event in detail over the years. Dr. Bromet identified and interviewed the high risk group of mothers of young children living near the nuclear plant. She found that they had rates of depression and anxiety that were twice as high as control group living farther away.

Ten years later, her study was repeated and found that their level of depression and anxiety was as high as they had been just after the accident. 75% said that they were worried about the effects of the accident on their long term health and the health of their children. Clearly the psychological effects of a radiation leak will be both wide spread and long lasting. Government health officials and physicians should be open with people about their exposure and their fears. They should treat mental as well as physical symptoms with equal vigor.

So what have we learned? What does this mean for the future?

Nuclear energy is a potential replacement source for fossil fuel. We recognize that we desperately need replacements. But are safeguards adequate? There have been nuclear accidents before Three Mile Island and others after it. Each time we learn something new. The question is - have we learned enough to safely control its production? None of us here on the ground can answer this question. We must rely on experts to reassure us. Not politicians or industry lobbyists, but experts; nuclear scientists and engineers without something to gain for themselves. Who do you feel you can trust?
As a post script, the film “The China Syndrome” opened across the country twelve days after Three Mile Island. It portrayed a nuclear accident at a California reactor where a meltdown was narrowly avoided. Where ever you lived, Three Mile Island was on your mind. The film’s box office receipts were bolstered by this real-life emergency in Pennsylvania.

“All along . . .  there were incidents and accidents . . . there were hints and allegations.” (from “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon, 1986)

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