Three Mile Island: How it looked to the locals

Much has been written about the famous Three Mile Island nuclear core meltdown that occurred 37 years ago on March 28, 1979. The scientific reports, and discussion of the effects on the environment, people and the nuclear industry are widely available. In this article, Dianuke posts one of the more obscure sources that is in the process of disappearing from the internet. Four years ago, a three-part series on the nuclear industry produced by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was available on a few podcast repositories. Today, only Part 3 is still available at this link, and the CBC itself seems to have deleted it.

The series, entitled Counting the Costs, was produced at a time in the 1990s when the Canadian nuclear industry was in crisis. A public inquiry had found gross management deficiencies in Ontario Hydro, there had been a serious accident at the Pickering NPP, and enormously costly upgrades would be necessary if nuclear was going to continue to be the main power source for the province of Ontario. The upgrades were made, but now, twenty years later, more are needed and the questions remain the same as they were then. How much longer should we continue to sink billions of dollars into this way of producing electricity?

Counting the Costs looked back at the history of the nuclear age and all the famous nuclear accidents. It took excerpts from a 1986 CBC documentary that discussed Chernobyl and the aftermath of the Three Mile Island accident which had occurred seven years before. The segment below is a transcript of interviews conducted with two local citizens, Kay Pickering and Jane Lee, who were very active in voicing the concerns of the inhabitants of the area who witnessed and suffered the accident first hand.

from Part Three of the CBC Radio Ideas program Counting the Costs

NARRATOR: Counting the Costs… if you heard our [previous] programs, you’ll know what chaos there was while the accident at Three Mile Island was underway. What’s happened since? While the cleanup continues at TMI 2, that’s the reactor that melted down back in 1979, the other reactor on Three Mile Island, that’s TMI 1, the one that survived, has been started up again and is producing electricity. The people nearby, many of them, are jumpy, expecting the worst. It’s hard to decide whether their fears are reasonable or not because just what happened during the first accident is not clear. Almost all of the scientific data about radioactive releases is unsatisfactory and the perceptions of past and continuing danger on the part of people who live near the plant sound like the basis for a science-fiction horror film. Jane Lee is a farmer whose front porch overlooks the Susquehanna River Valley and the Three Mile Island nuclear plant. She’s talking to Ideas producer Max Allen.


JANE LEE: That’s the towers. We’re standing in a valley, one of the most beautiful valleys you can imagine, the clouds are white and fleecy. It’s very nice, beautiful 60 degree (16C) weather. We’re looking at Unit 1 which they allowed to come online, which is constantly now leaking radioactivity from the steam tubes, and were also looking at Unit 2 where they’re doing constant cleanup, and also constant releases, as they have been venting for the past seven and half years since the accident. Every single day they are venting on us.

MAX ALLEN: Unit 1, which is working now, is emitting steam from the big towers. Unit 2: nothing is visible.

JANE LEE: That’s correct. You cannot see radiation when it’s coming out.

KAY PICKERING: I’m Kay Pickering. I’m at Three Mile Island Alert office in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We knew that there were problems at Three Mile Island with Unit 1, which was the working reactor, and Unit 2 had been constructed. We had reports of health problems in animals and people. We had reports that there were horror stories with the construction of Unit 2, so we were activated really out of the concern about what was getting out from Unit 1. Was the radioactivity actually harming people and animals in the area farms, and what was it going to be like when Unit 2 started since we had heard there were so many problems with the construction getting it going?

MAX ALLEN: This was before the Unit 2 accident.

KAY PICKERING: This was before the Unit 2 accident.

MAX ALLEN: You must’ve been really busy when the accident happened.

KAY PICKERING: Well, we were the networking group for central Pennsylvania.

MAX ALLEN:  Do you know how much radioactivity was released from the plant at the time of the accident?

KAY PICKERING: No, I don’t believe that anybody can say how much was released. The monitors that were in place went off scale. The NRC [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] and the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] got teams there as quickly as they could but the first outside team on site got there late in the afternoon. When you realize that the accident started at four in the morning… There are people who believe there were some problems before that, dating back a week or two. They had problems with Unit 2 for a year, very serious problems for a year before the accident.

MAX ALLEN: If somebody asked you what the costs of Three Mile Island were, what would you say?

JANE LEE: It’s going to cost at least $1 billion to clean up Unit 2, the unit that was destroyed by the melt. 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, and as they do that, of course, they’re constantly having emissions coming from the plant.

MAX ALLEN: That’s the financial cost. Are there other costs too?

JANE LEE: I think the most important issue that we’re talking about is the cost to the environment and also the cost to human life. According to the reports that we’re getting, 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 counties, the four counties surrounding Three Mile Island, compared to the numbers previous to the accident that the health department listed even just on leukemia.

MAX ALLEN: Now looking around here, what I see is some of the most beautiful farmland. It doesn’t look to me like damage has occurred.

JANE LEE: No, you’re not seeing the damage on the surface. What happens when the radionuclides come out of a nuclear power plant is they come down into the environment. They work their way into the soil, and as the foodstuffs begin to grow it comes up in the foodstuffs, and we are eating it.

MAX ALLEN: Do you have evidence that animals and plants have been damaged by this?

JANE LEE: Yes, substantially. We have done an in-depth report on plant life where we are seeing many mutations.

MAX ALLEN: Do you see things like this on your farm?

JANE LEE: Oh, yes. The leaves the first year… the birds on the farm disappeared, the trees… it looked like winter. Not only did we see complete defoliation, but we saw trees that were defoliated at different levels.

MAX ALLEN: Why do you stay here?

JANE LEE: 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.


From the CBC podcast Counting the Costs. Interviews conducted in 1986.

More reports on Three Mile Island:

Nuclear Hotseat #144, March 2014


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