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How Much Radiation?

Jane Lee is a tough-talking widow in her forties. From the kitchen of her family's stone farmhouse in Etters, a tiny town in central Pennsylvania, Lee has watched the quiet countryside around her undergo some dramatic changes.

Few rural areas in the United States have remained as well kept as the hill country around Harrisburg, a town of fifty thousand some 125 miles west of Philadelphia. With a large population of conservative, slow-moving "plain folk" from the Amish and Mennonite tradition the farm regions of the Susquehanna Valley still boast some of the most beautiful and bountiful acreage in the world. Lush, deeply cultivated fields and sturdy, well-kept barns are hallmarks of an area where traditional Dutch folk symbols still mean much more than mere souvenirs.

The deepest changes in this countryside of Jane Lee's have been the invisible kind--stemming from radiation. In the mid-1960s Metropolitan Edison, a subsidiary of the General Public Utilities (GPU) holding company, decided to build a massive atomic power complex. The plant would be at Three Mile Island, a narrow piece of land in the middle of the Susquehanna River, ten miles southeast of Harrisburg. The first 819-megawatt unit was ordered from Babcock & Wilcox reactor producers in 1966. By 1974 it was on line.

There was little opposition to TMI-1. But Jane Lee had spoken out about it. The state had already tried to put a toxic-waste dump on a nearby hilltop, where runoff would pollute the water table. "If the authorities were dumb enough to want to do something like that," Lee told us, "then I didn't think they could be trusted with a nuclear power plant either."

Living Next to Reactors

Lee's opposition to the project had made her visible. Two years after TMI-1 opened, she began to get complaints from her neighbors that strange things were happening to their animals. "We're all accustomed to having an animal die here and there, or some birthing problems, or an off-year with crops and the like," she told us. "But this seemed very new. All of a sudden we were being plagued with a whole lot of bizarre things. And when you have farmers telling you their animals are falling down and can't get up, or there are miscarriages, eggs not hatching, calves being born deformed, hair falling out and cows dying, and that people who have been farming here for decades can't find any explanation for it, well, you start to wonder."

The "wondering" led just one place--Three Mile Island. In a room behind her kitchen, three miles from the plant, Lee began accumulating files, collecting signed statements from those of her neighbors who were willing to put their animals' problems down on paper. "This isn't an area where people are used to speaking out," she told us. "It hasn't been easy to get people to come forward."

As we talked in the chilly dampness of early spring, Lee showed us photographs of a badly deformed litter of kittens, born in 1978. One appeared normal, a second was born with its hair in splotches, the final two were hairless runts, born dead. "The cats get a triple dose of radiation," Lee said. "They get it when they breathe and drink like the rest of us. They get it again when they eat wild animals like field mice. And they get it a third time when they lick themselves down after running in the fields."[1]

Nor were the cats the only animals to suffer. Duck eggs failed to hatch, and those ducklings that made it were often deformed. Rabbits and goats were stillborn. Cats dropped dead for no apparent reason. Trees lost their bark and gardens wilted overnight.

Emma Whitehall, who lived at the same farm within four miles of TMI for all of her seventy years, told Lee that in 1978 her ducks laid 290 eggs, not one of which hatched. She also lost a milk cow and her calf.

On the same road James Fitzgerald reported two calves born blind, with unnaturally soft bones. Across the river in Middletown, less than five miles from the reactor, Mary Ann Fisher saw a three-week-old litter of kittens drop dead overnight. One hundred eggs laid by twelve geese produced just one hatchling, which died.

In January of 1979, just after the opening of a second, larger nuclear unit at Three Mile Island, Fisher lost four litters of kittens to spontaneous abortions, had one full-term litter stillborn, and complained of four heifers being unable to conceive. Her geese laid eggs again with no hatchlings, then stopped setting.[2]

Charles Conley, who lives within eyesight of the TMI towers, also had complaints. Ever since the plant opened, he said, rainfall would wash a milky-white substance off his roof and into the cisterns from which his cows would drink. If the cows drank it, "they would get down and not be able to get up." If he dumped the white substance out of the cisterns, "the grass would die."

Other neighbors also complained of the mysterious white substance, and pointed to runoff lines below their roofs where something had created a trough of dead grass.

Conley had no proof the white substance was coming from the power plant. But he told us that "whenever it would shut down, why, the powder would disappear. And when it would fire up, the powder would come back."[3]

Born in 1914, within a half-mile of his farm, Conley readily conceded that country life is full of ups and downs, and that plants and animals get sick and die, sometimes for inexplicable reasons. "Any farmer with livestock knows you'll have a history of trouble," added Gary Huntsberger, owner of four hundred acres near the plant. "Just as you get one thing licked, you'll have another crop up."[4]

Indeed it is virtually impossible to nail down firm statistics on a "normal" rate of birth defects and reproductive problems among farm animals. Dr. Horst Leipold of Kansas State University, one of the nation's leading experts on animal husbandry, told us that a 1 percent stillbirth rate among beef and dairy cows was considered normal, and that the rate might be twice that for goats and pigs. "If I hear about two stillbirths, or malformations, at the same farm, I consider that serious enough to go out there," Leipold told us.[5]

For farmers and many observers there seemed obvious reasons why radiation around TMI, at Lloyd Mixon's ranch near Rocky Flats, and at other nuclear facilities would cause an abnormal number of symptoms to appear in animals before they would in humans. Some of them--particularly cats and rabbits--are much smaller and reproduce far more quickly, at a much earlier age, than humans. Most farm and wild animals also keep their mouths and noses constantly to the ground, for grazing and hunting. That means they absorb more heavy fallout particles from the air they breathe, the water they drink, and the plants and animals they eat. They may also receive more gamma doses from emitters on the ground.

Some animals also may be more radiation-sensitive than adult humans. In fact animals have been used as radiation monitors during abnormal emissions at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory. And it is well known that pine trees are more sensitive to radiation than grown humans.[6]

Humans, on the other hand, usually wash their vegetables. They stand farther off the ground than most other animals, and thus breathe in fewer heavy particulates. Their meat and fish are often not freshly slaughtered, giving some of the radiation time to decompose.

But ultimately, we are also susceptible. "Watch the animals," Helen Caldicott, a Boston pediatrician and radiation expert, told us in 1980. "What happens to them first will be happening to people soon enough."[7]

And what was happening to animals during normal operations at Three Mile Island also seemed to be happening near other reactor sites. At Hinsdale, New Hampshire, just across the Connecticut River from the Vermont Yankee reactor, sixty-seven-year-old Annie Fostyck was seeing things in her cows she'd never seen before. After the plant opened, she said, there was a rash of "cows miscarrying, aborting. Cows with boils, tumors, lameness. Cows eating clay even in winter." She also complained of a "white, milky film" that floated in the air and would "fly off when the corn was cut."

Neighbor John Solacz found that cows "have been harder to breed" since the plant opened. "Right after freshening," he said, "some have run a high fever, stopped eating and died within a week. They're aborting too."

Steve Stoll, a public-relations man for Vermont Yankee, had heard similar charges before. There was "nothing to substantiate" claims the reactor was harming animals. "We have people calling us up all the time with these complaints. But most of the time, it's just generalities," he told Vermonter reporter Susan Green. "These people do not know anything about radiation, so when anything is out of the ordinary, it's easy to blame Vermont [Yankee]."

Mildred Zywna's complaints were not so easily dismissed. As a Hinsdale town selectwoman, she had reported a general disappearance of squirrels, rabbits, and birds after Vermont Yankee opened. A number of trees had died mysteriously, and the bark was peeling off some on the sides facing the plant. A grandmother in her late fifties, Zywna had noticed a rise in thyroid cancers in town. She also knew that Dr. Rosalie Bertell of the Roswell Park Memorial Cancer Research Institute in Buffalo had noted a high rate of heart problems requiring hospitalization in Vernon, where Vermont Yankee was located. Disturbed by such findings, Zywna and her fellow town officers had asked the state for statistics on cancer rates in Hinsdale. The state never responded.[8]

Farmers in upstate New York near the Nine Mile Point and Fitzpatrick power reactors got similar treatment. "We've been trying to get a study done here for years," we were told by Nancy Weber, a dairy farmer in the town of Mexico. "But we haven't been able to get anybody to listen to us."

Weber's dairy farm has been in her husband's family for thirty-five years, and is situated near both plants. The area also has toxic-waste dumps. However, according to Weber NRC documents indicated that emissions from the nearby reactors were peaking at the same time a score of local farmers had experienced "more than normal abortions among our animals" plus "extreme difficulty in getting cows bred."

Some calves that made it were coming out deformed, including several born at 150 pounds, twice normal. "It was like a science fiction movie," she said. "One calf came out staring at me with giant red eyes." Among other things, the oversized calves were causing pelvic separations among the mothers. For about a year, Weber told us, there were instances of calves being born with two tails and three front legs, with brain and liver tumors, and with severe deformations in their internal organs. A goat farmer reported "mummified kids born left and right." Reproductive problems among cats became rampant.

The NUS Corporation, which did the controversial environmental monitoring at Shippingport in the early 1970s, also surveyed the Fitzpatrick/Nine Mile Point area in 1980. They found abnormal cesium levels at one nearby farm, but blamed it on bomb fallout. "Nobody quite believed that," said Weber.[9]

Columnist Jack Anderson also reported some similar problems at Shippingport. In his nationally syndicated column he said that the new Beaver Valley plant had contaminated the drinking water supply at the site, and had dumped nine thousand gallons of radioactive liquids into the Ohio River without warning towns downstream that drew drinking water from it.

Shippingport residents told journalist Howard Rosenberg, an investigator for Jack Anderson, of "white dust that sometimes covered their roofs and filled their cisterns. They charged that their water wells and backyard gardens had occasionally been contaminated. They showed him chunks of calcium sulfate that had fallen on their property. He brought one plate-sized chunk of pollution back as a souvenir."

Rosenberg also reported strange goings-on among area wildlife, including "tales of birds that walked backwards." Hunters and woodsmen said that "the lush foliage along the riverbank has turned brown and sickly. The deer long ago abandoned their former haunts." In an interview Rosenberg also told us that small animals like rabbits, squirrels, and sparrows had disappeared from the woods.[10]

One of Anderson's columns on the situation at Shippingport was banned by a number of western Pennsylvania newspapers.

But reports of similar symptoms in Arkansas surfaced on the national wire of the Associated Press. In that case a farmer named Herschel Bennett said the 850-megawatt Arkansas Nuclear One was destroying his farm, which was just a quarter mile away.

Owned by Arkansas Power and Light Company (AP&L), Nuclear One is seventy miles from Little Rock, in the town of Russellville. It was granted its operating license in 1974. In the late winter of 1977 Bennett reported a calf born on his farm with no eyeballs. "One lid was growed shut," he told the Arkansas Gazette. "The lid didn't open, but you could feel there was nothing back there. The other eyelid would open and close and there was no eyeball at all."[11]

The eyeless calf died on March 1, 1977. Another calf was born around the same time with no tail. "Nothing like that calf being born deformed ever happened here before," Bennett told us in a 1980 interview. Bennett and his wife had been on the same farm since the 1940s. The place had been owned by Bennett's grandfather before him.

Along with his thirty head of cattle Bennett managed a twenty-acre peach orchard. Soon after the eyeless calf succumbed, a quarter of Bennett's peach orchard also died. Bennett called the operators of Nuclear One, who soon visited his farm with a representative of the local agricultural extension service. They told him his problems were from winterkill. According to Bennett, a Louisiana State University horticulturist named Dr. Earl Puls added "poor management" and "an extremely high population of nematodes" to the list of causes. Puls, who visited the farm "for about one hour," said his findings were "conclusive in ruling out any type of nuclear radiation."[12]

Puls's report was reminiscent of official studies done of animal problems at Lloyd Mixon's ranch near Rocky Flats and of official disclaimers at Vermont Yankee and Nine Mile Point. "I've been raising peaches for more than thirty years now," Bennett told us in an interview, "and there was just one year, back in the 1950s, when we had no crop. Now this fellow comes from some university, spends an hour here and tells me I'm mismanaging my orchards and don't know what I'm talking about. Well, I'll tell you this. We haven't lost anything in this heat and drought. And that plant's been shut down for a long time now [for repairs] and ever since it's been shut down, why, we've had as good a year as any."

After the death of his eyeless calf, Bennett reported a rash of reproductive problems in his cow herd, and a drop in the hatching rate of chicken eggs laid at his farm. A laboratory confirmed the problem with the eggs, but declined to name a cause.

There were no monitoring devices at Bennett's farm. But NRC records did confirm that Nuclear One dumped an abnormal amount of radioactive liquid into nearby Lake Dardanelle in the summer and fall of 1976, when the eyeless calf might have been most vulnerable. "Their problems corresponded to mine as far as time was concerned," Bennett told us. "Leaks and spills and releases and filtering problems. . . . They did everything wrong about the time the calf was born without any eyeballs."[13]

NRC records confirmed the releases. But the commission's Jack Donohew said the levels were "a fraction" of what could cause "biological mutations." He told the Arkansas Gazette the fact that Bennett's animal problems surfaced at the same time as the radioactive releases was "probably just a coincidence."[14]

1. Jane Lee, interview, March 1980.

2. Affidavits at Fisher Farm, Etters, Pennsylvania.

3. Charles Conley, interview, March 1980.

4. Laura T. Hammel, "Three Mile Island's Second Accident: How Government Failed," Baltimore News-American, July 20, 1980 (hereafter cited as "Second Accident").

5. Horst Leipold, interview, May 1981; See also, L. O. Gilmore and N. S. Feccheimer, "Congenital Abnormalities in Cattle and Their General Etiological Factors," Journal of Dairy Science 52, No. 11, pp. 1831-1836.

6. Karl Z. Morgan, interview, May 1981.

7. Helen Caldicott, interview, March 1980. We talked with Dr. Caldicott just before her appearance on a nationally televised panel in Harrisburg. The occasion was the accident's first anniversary. When asked about the general rash of animal problems in the area, one pronuclear panelist blamed "milk fever" and advised giving the cows in question "a swift kick."

8. Susan Green, "Yankee: The People and the Plant," Vermonter, December 7, 1980 (hereafter cited as "Vermont Yankee"); and David Riley, "Big Power in a Small Town," Country Journal, April 1980. We did follow-up interviews with most of the people mentioned in these articles and found the accounts to be quite similar to those around TMI.

9. Nancy Weber, interview, April 1981. See also, "Bovine Blues," The Waste Paper, the Sierra Club, spring 1980, and "Radioactive Milk?" winter 1981.

10. Jack Anderson and Les Whitten, "Washington Merry-Go-Round," November 1, 1977, November 16, 1977, and April 17, 1979 (hereafter cited as "Merry-Go-Round"). Also, Howard Rosenberg, interview, May 1981. Anderson and Whitten's November 1, 1977, column, entitled "White Clouds Over Pa.," was the one banned in some western Pennsylvania newspapers.

11. Carol Matlack, and Ginger Shiras, "Farmer Near Plant Reports Calf Deformed, Trees Died," Arkansas Gazette, June 2, 1979, p. 1-A (hereafter cited as "Farmer"). (We first found Bennett's story in an Associated Press story, "Farmer Thinks Nuclear Plant Is Cause of His Plight," Columbus Dispatch, September 23, 1979. Our thanks to Phyllis Wasserman for sending us that and many other clippings.)

12. Arkansas Gazette, October 17 and November 1, 1979.

13. Herschel Bennett interview, October 1980. Herschel Bennett died under mysterious circumstances as we were writing this book. He was investigating the outtake pipes at Nuclear One and somehow fell into twelve feet of water and drowned. There was just one witness to the drowning. No autopsy was performed. Bill Peters, letter to authors, November 13, 1980; and, Bill Peters, interview, November 1980.

14. Matlack and Shiras, "Farmer"; See also, On the Record: Operations and Reported Incidents of Arkansas Nuclear One (People's Action for Safe Energy, 401 Watson, Fayetteville, AR 72701).

The Reactors' Safety Record

The spreading fear among farmers had its political costs. Such fears--plus economic concerns--prompted the town of Eugene, Oregon, to vote down, in 1966, a reactor project planned nearby.

Through the late sixties and early seventies a small but dedicated group of concerned citizens around the country devoted thousands of dollars and years of effort to dragging the industry through the licensing process and the courts, trying to stop the reactors or at least make them safer. In so doing they laid the foundation for a social movement.

By the early seventies concern had spread, particularly in areas where the plants were being built. An amalgam of traditionally conservative farmers, fishing people, and small-town residents joined with nationally organized nuclear opponents. In 1976 the first coordinated civil disobedience actions took place at the Seabrook reactor site on the New Hampshire seacoast. Operating with nonviolent tactics, a coalition called the Clamshell Alliance helped organize a series of occupations that captured the imagination of environmental activists around the U.S. By the summer of 1978, when the Clamshell attracted some twenty thousand nuclear opponents to the Seabrook site, scores of occupations had taken place around the country, and a national antinuclear network was in place. A movement had grown to stop the reactor industry that echoed the one aimed at atmospheric testing two decades earlier.[15]

By the spring of 1979 the peaceful atom was in serious financial straits. The Arab oil embargo of 1973 had sent fuel prices soaring, which by all expectations should have made atomic energy more competitive. Instead it sent the cost of the reactors themselves soaring, at a rate far higher than the cost increases in coal burners. Electricity prices also rose sharply, prompting American consumers to use far less. That, in turn, helped undercut the demand for new reactors, which fell further because of public pressure and a loss of faith in the technology.[16] Orders fell drastically, from forty-one in 1973 and twenty-six in 1974, to four in 1975, three in 1976, four in 1977, and two in 1978. Cancellations quickly outnumbered orders. In 1978 the number of domestic reactors on line, on order or under construction dropped to 197, lowest since 1972.[17]

And there were other problems. In 1966 the Fermi fast breeder, which the UAW had fought to the Supreme Court, very nearly caused a devastating radioactive release. Starting on October 5, 1966, the reactor hovered on the brink of a catastrophic meltdown for an entire month. Its operators secretly alerted local police and officials in Detroit, forty miles north, that a mass evacuation might be necessary. The disaster was barely averted.[18]

Eleven years later two workmen at the Tennessee Valley Authority's Browns Ferry plant near Decatur, Alabama, set the plant's wiring system on fire. The workers had been using a candle to check for air leaks and had set some insulation into flames. By the time the fire was out, $100 million in damage had been done.[19]

By 1979 sloppy reactor construction, poor design, and inept operation had become a national scandal. That year's NRC records revealed more than twenty-three hundred operating errors, including a failure of control rods at Browns Ferry; a temporary blackout in the control room of a power plant in Florida; the surprise development of a steam bubble in another Florida reactor; and the blowout of a coolant pump at Arkansas Nuclear One, near Herschel Bennett's farm. New York's Fitzpatrick II--where Nancy Weber's cows were dying--listed eighty-eight incidents of its own.[20] There were other incidents as well: one reactor cooling system had been hooked up to the plant's drinking supply. At another plant a basketball wrapped in tape had been used to plug a defective pipe.[21]

Through the end of 1979, the allowable average dose to residents near the plants remained at 170 millirems per year, a rate Drs. Gofman and Tamplin calculated would guarantee an extra thirty-two thousand deaths per year. And methods of measuring radioactive releases had not been systematically improved despite the recommendations of the Shapp Commission. If anything, standards were regressing.

In 1975, for example, excessive strontium 90 radiation was found in milk at a farm near the Shippingport plant. The following year, monitoring at that farm was discontinued.[22]

In October of 1977 Ernest Sternglass charged that strontium emissions from the Millstone Nuclear Power Station at Waterford, Connecticut, were extraordinarily high, and had led to an increased rate of cancer.[23] Soon thereafter the NRC eliminated the requirement that utilities collect strontium 90 data. Budgetary reasons were cited.[24]

Also that fall the General Accounting Office released a report charging that the EPA's national radiation monitoring program did not measure exposure for 40 percent of the American people, "and provides only educated guesses for the remaining 60%." The GAO warned that "levels of radiation are increasing which affect not only the health of the current population, but of future generations because of genetic damage." Federal agencies lacked resources, staff, and know-how to deal with the problem, said the GAO. Environmental Protection Agency policy "may not be the result of public need, but rather reflects a crisis-oriented approach to the problem."[25] Despite the warning, the Reagan administration in 1981 drastically cut the EPA's radiation monitoring program well below the levels cited as inadequate by the GAO.

But crisis was something the industry was saying could not happen. Despite the near-catastrophes at Fermi and Browns Ferry, reactor manufacturers, utilities, and their supporters in government continued to assure the public that an accident was next to impossible. In 1976 an MIT professor named Norman Rasmussen issued a major study indicating that the odds against a major meltdown by 1980 were on the order of one in twenty thousand. Sponsored by the NRC, his report was hailed by the industry as the ultimate confirmation of nuclear reactor safety.[26]

But in January of 1979, under public attack, the NRC renounced the Rasmussen report and in essence admitted that it did not know what the odds on a reactor accident really were.[27]

In the spring of 1979 the GAO issued another study on radiation, this one entitled Areas Around Nuclear Facilities Should Be Better Prepared for Radiological Emergencies. Among other things the report warned that evacuation plans around military and commercial plants were deficient. "There does not appear to be a Federal policy on providing nuclear accident response information to the general public," charged the report. There was thus "only limited assurance that the people near most fixed nuclear facilities will be adequately protected from the radiological consequences of a serious nuclear accident."

In fact part of the problem seemed to be active hostility on the part of the utilities. At several locations, complained the GAO, "facilities' operators were reluctant to provide public information for fear of creating public alarm that could result in new or prolonged current protest activities."[28] The GAO report, which had been months in preparation, was dated March 30, 1979.

Two days earlier the "impossible" had begun to happen at Pennsylvania's Three Mile Island Unit Two. The reactor had been rushed into operation by its owners--The Metropolitan Edison Company--on December 28, 1978, apparently for tax purposes. Critics charged it was not fully prepared to go into operation, and its early record proved it. Within weeks after it opened, Unit Two had two valves break during a turbine test. On February 1 a throttle valve began to leak. A day later a pump blew a seal. Then another pump tripped off.

Finally, at 3:58 A.M. on March 28, 1979, alarms in the control room began to flash. Feedwater pumps went off line. Control-room operators misread their instruments and began making wrong decisions. As the core lost water, heat and pressure began to rise. A valve opened and didn't close. Radioactive water gushed onto the floor of the containment building. The emergency core cooling system kicked in, but an operator shut it off. A pump flooded an auxiliary building with contaminated water, causing a steam release. Radiation escaped through the containment. Radioactive water leaked into the Susquehanna River.

Finally, a hydrogen bubble developed in the core, apparently threatening an explosion. While America--and the world--hung with bated breath, unknown quantities of radiation escaped into the air of central Pennsylvania.[29]

15. For a documentary history of the early antireactor movement see Harvey Wasserman, Energy War: Reports from the Front (Westport, Conn: Lawrence Hill, 1979).

16. Charles Komonoff, Power Plant Cost Escalation (New York: Komonoff Energy Associates, 1981).

17. A good reference for the history of reactor orders is the Atomic Industrial Forum's "Historical Profile of U.S. Nuclear Power Development," which can be gotten from the AIF at 7101 Wisconsin Ave., Washington, D.C. 20014.

18. Fuller, We Almost Lost Detroit.

19. U.S. Congress, Senate and House Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant Fire, 94th Cong., September 16, 1975.

20. New York Times, July 14, 1980, p. 26; see also, 1979: 2000 Nuclear Mishaps (Washington, D.C.: Critical Mass Energy Project, 1980).

21. Robert Pollard, ed., The Nugget File (Cambridge, Mass.: Union of Concerned Scientists, 1979).

22. Anderson and Whitten, "Merry-Go-Round," November 16, 1977.

23. Ernest Sternglass, "Strontium-90 Levels in the Milk and Diet Near Connecticut Nuclear Power Plants," October 27, 1977, and Sternglass, "Cancer Mortality Changes Around Nuclear Facilities in Connecticut," presented at a congressional seminar on low-level radiation, Washington, D.C., February 10, 1978. Sternglass's charge that high emissions from the Millstone plant might have caused a rise in cancer rates in nearby communities was given preliminary confirmation by early indicators from a Connecticut State study. See Steve Fagin, "Radiation Study Group Gets Preliminary Report on Cancer," New London Day, June 10, 1981, p. 2.

24. Joseph Hendrie, Chairman, NRC, letter to Dorothy B. Jones, First Vice-President, Another Mother for Peace, December 3, 1978. In the letter Hendrie says that by monitoring for Cs-137 the NRC could also determine how much Sr-90 was being released. "The omission of radiostrontium from the recommended program is not a monitoring issue," he said.

25. New York Times, September 15, 1977, p. A-1.

26. NRC, WASH-1400, October 1975.

27. NRC, "Statement on Risk Assessment and the Reactor Safety Study Report," WASH-1400, in Light of Risk Assessment Group Report (Washington, D.C.: NRC January 18, 1979).

28. GAO, Areas Around Nuclear Facilities Should be Better Prepared for Radiological Emergencies, EMD-78-110 (Washington, D.C.: GAO, March 30, 1979), pp. 28-31.

29. There are numerous accounts of the TMI meltdown. One appears in Washington Post, Crisis: Three Mile Island (Washington, D.C.: The Washington Post, 1979) (hereafter: Crisis).

How Much Radiation?

First and foremost the utility, the NRC, and the industry strove to minimize the public impression of how much radiation had escaped at Three Mile Island and how dangerous it might be. As the AEC had done in more than 250 bomb tests, and as the operators of the Windscale and Rocky Flats facilities had also done, the owners of TMI now hastened to assure the public that only negligible amounts of radiation had escaped to the atmosphere, and that there was no reason to believe anyone would be harmed.

The total emission from the accident, said Margaret Reilly of Pennsylvania's Department of Radiation Protection, amounted to "a gnat's eyelash." Despite the order from Pennsylvania governor Richard Thornburgh--two days after the accident--that pregnant women and small children abandon the immediate area, official press releases compared the maximum possible exposure to a single X ray.[30]

But there was no denying that some reactor by-products had escaped. Through a series of complex mathematical formulas the NRC estimated that sixteen million curies of noble gases and fourteen curies of radioactive iodine 131 had been added to the atmosphere. With complex calculations involving the two million people within a fifty-mile radius of TMI it was decided that each individual had received an average dose of 1.4 millirems, a bare fraction of normal background radiation. The maximum dose anyone could have gotten, added Reilly, was seventy millirems--and that was "only for someone standing stark naked at the plant gates for seven days."[31] Reilly's estimates did not apply to inhalation or ingestion of radioactive gases or particles.

Within months a presidential commission under the leadership of Dartmouth College president George Kemeny confirmed the NRC findings. "On the basis of present scientific knowledge," said the commission, the radiation doses "were so small that there will be no detectable additional cases of cancer, developmental abnormalities, or genetic ill-health as a consequence of the accident at TMI." At worst just one of the 325,000 people in the area who were eventually expected to die of cancer could be said to have a "reasonable chance" of having been affected by TMI radiation.[32]

Active supporters of atomic power went even further. In a series of national advertisements Dr. Edward Teller claimed to have been "the only victim of Three Mile Island." The nervous stress he suffered from attacks by nuclear opponents on his favored industry, he said, had led to a heart attack. As for fallout, Teller charged that the risk was no different from living in a high mountain area near Denver, where natural background radiation is higher than it is in central Pennsylvania.

Teller did not specify whether this was calculated on living upwind or downwind from Rocky Flats. But his point was clear. "There is a possibility but not a probability that due to the TMI accident one single person years from now might develop cancer."[33]

That conclusion was not universally shared. Karl Z. Morgan and others soon charged that the amount of emissions had been underestimated, and that specific pockets of population may well have received very heavy doses--particularly in the town of Harrisburg, which was downwind at key times during the accident.

The means of measuring plant emissions at TMI were essentially four: monitors in the stacks to gauge how much radiation was escaping; charcoal filters in the stacks which trapped some of that material for later measurement; monitors nearby to estimate how much radiation had reached into the general environment; and samplings of vegetation, milk, and animal tissue from area farms and forests to estimate how much radiation was being ingested by local animals. The definitive results from each of these indicators is very much in dispute.

On April 12, for example, in the midst of the crisis, an NRC official named Lake Barrett conceded that monitors in the plant stacks "did not provide accurate readings of absolute quantities of radioactivity released during the accident." High radiation levels, said Barrett, had driven monitors "off scale" and rendered them useless.[34]

In June, Albert Gibson, a Radiation Support section chief who coauthored the NRC's final report on TMI emissions, confirmed the problem. Testifying in front of the five NRC commissioners, Gibson said, "All the radiation monitors in the vent stack, where as much as 80 percent of the radiation escaped, went off scale the morning of the accident. The trouble with those monitors is they were never contemplated for use in monitoring accidents like Three Mile Island."

Gibson explained there were three monitors in the vent stack and five more in the pathways leading to it. All eight were at their maximum levels the morning of the accident. It was impossible to tell how much radiation really escaped. The monitors merely recorded a minimum amount.

"So," asked Commissioner Victor Gilinsky, "we don't really know what went up there? Up through the vent stack?"

"That's correct," Gibson confirmed.

Inside the building readings showed a minimum of a million millirems per hour, a lethal dose. On site, the day of the accident, monitors 1000 feet from the vent stack showed levels of 365 millirems of beta and gamma rays per hour. A helicopter directly over the vent stack measured emissions three times as high. Even those measurements were "very inconclusive," said Gibson. They showed dose rates "only at the moments the measurements were made." Without full knowledge of weather patterns, he admitted, "we don't know if they were made at the appropriate locations."[35]

Thus Gibson had told his NRC superiors that one of the key methods of measuring emissions--the stack monitors--had been essentially useless during and after the accident.

But in a 1981 interview with us Gibson backtracked. "I don't want your book to read too much into what I said to the commissioners," he told us. "What I meant to say then was that at the time of the accident we didn't know how much radiation was escaping. But later, by measuring the charcoal filters in the stacks, we could estimate the totals."

The NRC's second line of defense, Gibson told us, did work as it should have. Charcoal filters in the plant stacks trapped a certain percentage of the iodine 131 and other isotopes that were released during the accident. "Had we known the accident was going to occur, we would have had many more monitors in operation," Gibson said. "But I have confidence the iodine concentrations released were reasonable."[36]

However one preaccident NRC study had already questioned the filters' performance and predictability under conditions involving large quantities of moisture and noble gases.[37] A fall 1978 DOE conference also discussed poor filter performance where moisture was involved, predicting such problems as corrosion which could allow radioactive material to escape and thus go undetected by later measurement of the filters.[38] A later article in Nuclear Engineering magazine said the filters may not have been of much use anyway. Because of "an unusual amount of aqueous vapor," wrote Seo Takeshi of Kyoto University's Nuclear Reactor Laboratory, "the adsorbent capacity of the cartridges must have been rapidly minimized." Their saturation resulted in low readings, for which the NRC and the utility "did not make any corrections," a failure Takeshi termed "inexcusable."[39]

The Kemeny commissioners were also concerned. "Due to improper use before the accident," they concluded, filters in the auxiliary and fuel handling buildings "did not perform as designed."[40]

And in fact, in April of 1979, the NRC's Harold Denton told a Middletown news conference that at one point at least twenty stack filters had been removed without being replaced. Thus "there was a potential for bypass leakage through the filter space getting out without being filtered." In other words radiation escaped because the filters were not there to stop it.[41]

Thus the stack monitors and filters were almost completely unreliable. But there was still the third line of defense--environmental monitoring systems operated by Met Ed and the NRC. These networks were built around a radiation reading device known as a thermo-luminescent dosimeter (TLD) designed to measure gamma radiation. The TLDs, said Albert Gibson, "gave us confirmation of the levels we estimated to be leaking from the plant."[42]

But by all accounts the TLD program was also ineffective. For one thing, they are designed to measure radiation exposures over a period of months. "Real-time" monitors, which can more accurately measure how much radiation is being released over shorter periods of time, were not in use during the TMI accident, and had not been deployed by the time of this writing, more than two years later. Second, the TLDs read only gamma radiation. But large quantities of unrelated alpha-and beta-emitters were also escaping from TMI, and there was no equipment to monitor them. According to Dr. Carl Johnson of Colorado, who worked for months to get information on alpha releases to compare with those at Rocky Flats, "no data are to be found."[43]

The TLDs themselves were irregularly placed and unreliable. Because of "poor maintenance," wrote Seo Takeshi, data for the crucial period of March 31 to April 1 were "not reliable." From many sectors around TMI "there are no data at all." And overall "estimates of the collective dose and quantity of released radioactivity based on this poor data cannot be accurate and should be considered under the actual level."

In fact, Takeshi added, based on an August 1979 study by the NRC, as much as sixty-four thousand curies of I-131 had been released, a figure four thousand times what the public had been told, and a dose capable of endangering the health of the local population.[44]

Thomas Gerusky, head of the state's Bureau of Radiation Protection, confirmed that the monitoring equipment at TMI was "geared mainly for routine accidents--little things. I think the thought was at the time that if a major accident occurred, the monitoring could always be extended. Of course, they found it couldn't."[45]

Both state and federal authorities acknowledged that in the first two days of the accident--when approximately 80 percent of the radiation was released--there were nowhere near enough TLDs around. "We don't know if there were other releases early on, other than from the stacks," Gerusky told The (Baltimore) News-American. "There are still some questions of just how much I-131 was released early in the accident." Next time, added Margaret Reilly, the authorities would know that "it is nice to be lavish with TLDs." After all, she said, TMI was a "dress rehearsal for an accident."[46]

The TLDs were sent primarily to two companies to be evaluated. One was the Radiation Monitoring Corporation, a subsidiary of Philadelphia Electric--one of the nation's most ardent promoters of atomic power. The other was Teledyne Isotopes, a subsidiary of Teledyne Inc.--a Los Angeles-based multinational corporation with some $400 million in contracts with the nuclear-committed U.S. military. Both companies thus had clear financial interests in defending atomic power.[47]

Doses read on Metropolitan Edison TLDs showed less radiation than those from the NRC, a discrepancy the Kemeny Commission discussed but could not explain.[48]

And one particular reading threw a shadow over the entire evaluation. In the course of sifting through the measurements, the Kemeny staff found a station 96 miles to the northwest of TMI with comparatively high readings. The absolute dose was very small, but in comparative terms it seemed to indicate an abnormal radiation level in Harrisburg. The commission dismissed the high reading as inaccurate, theorizing that the dose had accumulated on that particular TLD because of improper handling. They labeled it the "northwest anomaly."[49]

But in fact the "anomaly" seemed to confirm one of the most crucial charges of all--that the radiation from the plant had not spread evenly over the area, but had in fact blown in a narrow path to the northwest, toward Harrisburg--some ten miles away.

The last line of official monitoring rested with vegetation, milk, and animal surveys. According to John Nikoloff, a spokesman for the state Agriculture Department, "hundreds" of milk samples were taken after the accident. Overall, he told us, no concentrations were found exceeding forty-one picocuries per liter of radioactive iodine--far below the state's maximum limit of 100 picocuries per liter. "Nothing we saw indicated any serious problem," Nikoloff said.[50]

But Metropolitan Edison's own readings indicated a finding of 105 picocuries per liter in goats' milk at the Louise Hardison farm, less than two miles from the plant.[51] And The (Baltimore) News-American reported that an independent survey conducted by an associate professor of nuclear engineering at nearby Pennsylvania State University produced seven readings of twelve hundred picocuries or more per liter.[52] The findings led Thomas Gerusky to tell The News American that "there might have been more iodine out there than we thought."[53]

There were other contradictions. Margaret Reilly told us the state tested a number of animals for radioactivity and "found nothing."[54] But the U.S. Bureau of Fish and Wildlife at Harrisburg also conducted a survey and reported levels of I-131 in rabbit thyroids considerably higher than what had been previously recorded. "We put our trust in the NRC and Met Ed," said the bureau's Norman Chupp, "and it seems like they're not interested in the animals we're interested in. . . . Who knows if the results would have been more significant if we had gotten out earlier?"[55]

A second study, conducted by four faculty members of the nearby Millersville State College around the same time as the DOA survey, seemed to confirm the high iodine findings elsewhere. The study used meadow voles--a small rodent--as a control and found high levels of I-131 in the thyroids of animals caught near the plant.[56]

Meanwhile an article in Science indicated that extraordinary readings had been registered as far away as Albany-Troy.[57] Another independent monitor noted high readings in Maine following the accident.[58]

Throughout the TMI area local residents complained of a strange, "metallic" taste in their mouths. "You can tell it's in the air," Charles Conley told us at his farm near TMI. "You can taste it. We all did."[59]

TMI's unhappy neighbors also created a run on Geiger counters, which many soon claimed were showing abnormal levels throughout central Pennsylvania. The trend prompted Margaret Reilly to "joke" to The (Baltimore) News-American that the state had been considering buying the instruments off the shelves to stop the flow of alarmed complaints about high releases.[60]

In an April 1980 panel sponsored by the New York Academy of Sciences, Pennsylvania's Thomas Gerusky emphasized that "thousands of samples of milk, air, water, produce, soil, vegetation, fish, river sediment, and silt in the TMI vicinity were analyzed." But precise dose estimates were "valid only for individuals living within three miles of TMI," he said, "because most of the sampling took place within that area."[61] Reilly added in a June 1981 interview that though they "posed no health hazard," noble gas releases pouring out of TMI on Thursday, the night after the accident began, were so heavy that radiological experiments being conducted at a building in Harrisburg had to be discontinued because of radioactive interference.[62]

Few people were more worried about those releases than NRC chairman Joseph Hendrie. On Friday morning, March 30, at the height of the crisis, Hendrie got word of a burst release over the stacks. It indicated emissions of "about 1200 millirem per hour which seems to calculate out, by the time the plume comes to the ground, where people would get it, would be about 120 millirem per hour. Now that is still below EPA evacuation trigger levels; on the other hand, it certainly is a pretty husky dose rate to be having off-site."[63]

At least a portion of that "husky dose rate" was apparently coming down in Harrisburg, where its effects on local babies would be lethal.

30. Hammel, "Second Accident."

31. Margaret Reilly, interview, March 1981. In a June 1980 interview Reilly told us the 1.4 millirem average dose estimate was "vague" and "probably meaningless. Nonetheless it was used by Edward Teller and numerous utilities in pronuclear advertising.

32. Kemeny Report, p. 34.

33. Edward Teller, "The Overblown Fear of Radiation," Philadelphia Inquirer, 1979.

34. Lake Barrett, "Preliminary Estimates of Radioactivity Releases from Three Mile Island," memorandum for distribution, NRC, April 12, 1979, p. 1.

35. Thomas O'Toole, "NRC Told Radiation Leak at A-Plant Off the Gauges," Washington Post, June 22, 1979. p. A-3.

36. Albert Gibson, interview, February 1981.

37. D. W. Underhill and D. W. Moeller, The Effects of Temperature, Moisture, Concentration, Pressure and Mass Transfer on the Absorption of Krypton and Xenon on Activated Carbon, NUREG-0678 (Washington, D.C.: Nuclear Regulatory Commission).

38. C. E. Graves, et al., "Operational Maintenance Problems with Iodine Adsorbers in Nuclear Power Plant Service," in Proceedings, 15th DOE Nuclear Air Cleaning Conference, Boston, August 7-10, 1978, pp. 428-444.

39. Seo Takeshi, "NRC's Gross Underestimation of the Radioactive Releases and Population Doses During the TMI-2 Accident" (hereafter cited as "NRC's Underestimation"). We saw this article, a version of which later appeared in Nuclear Engineering, magazine, as an unpublished manuscript.

40. Kemeny Report, p. 30.

41. Richard Roberts, "Iodine Level from N-Plant Exceeds Limit," Harrisburg Patriot, April 18, 1979.

42. Gibson interview.

43. Carl Johnson, interview, May 1980. In a June 1981 interview Margaret Reilly confirmed the lack of alpha monitoring, but said that since "zip radiation" had been found in reactor coolant, it was unlikely any had escaped. Reilly also told us that methods of gauging how much radiation had escaped by taking an inventory of the core were "essentially worthless."

44. Takeshi, "NRC's Underestimation"; and Bruce Mulholt, "Testimony in Support of Off-Site Contentions of the Environmental Coalition of Nuclear Power," NRC, TMI-1 Restart Hearings, Docket 50-289, March 16, 1981, Table 5.

45. Hammel, "Second Accident."

46. Ibid.

47. Information on the corporate underpinnings of Teledyne Isotopes and Radiation Management came from the Corporate Responsibility Project, 475 Riverside Dr., Room 566, New York City 10115. Teledyne's defense contracts were cited in David Gold, "Defense Department's Top 100," CEP Newsletter, November 1980. Ownership of Radiation Management can be traced through Standard and Poor's 1981 index. The president of Philadelphia Electric is also the president of Radiation Management.

48. Health Physics and Dosimetry Task Group, Kemeny Commission, Report of the Public Health and Safety Task Force on Health Physics and Dosimetry (Washington, D.C., October 1979), p. 133.

49. Ibid., p. 136.

50. John Nikoloff, interview, March 1980.

51. Metropolitan Edison Company, "Three Mile Island Nuclear Station Radiological Environmental Monitoring Program: Annual Report for 1979," April 1980, p. 19.

52. Hammel, "Second Accident."

53. Ibid.

54. Reilly interview.

55. Hammel, "Second Accident."

56. R. William Field, et al., "Iodine 131 in Thyroids of the Meadow Vole (Microtus Pennsylvanicus) in the Vicinity of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Plant." We used an unpublished version of this article.

57. Martin Wahlen, et al., "Radioactive Plume From the Three Mile Island Accident: Xenon 133 in Air at a Distance of 375 Kilometers," Science, February 8, 1980, Vol. 207 pp. 639-640.

58. Thomas Pawlick, "The Silent Toll," Harrowsmith, June 1980.

59. Conley interview.

60. Hammel, "Second Accident."

61. Thomas H. Moss and David L. Sills, eds., "The Three Mile Island Nuclear Accident: Lessons and Implications," in Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, April 24, 1981, pp. 56-57.

62. Margaret Reilly, interview, June 1981. Reilly said the building affected was the Evangelical Press Building, where the state maintained a laboratory.

63. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, April 16, 1979, p. 1.

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