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How the “Peaceful Atom” Became a Serial Killer March 26, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Energy, Environment, Nuclear weapons/power.
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Thursday 24 March 2011

by: Chip Ward  |  TomDispatch | News Analysis

When nuclear reactors blow, the first thing that melts down is the truth. Just as in the Chernobyl catastrophe almost 25 years ago when Soviet authorities denied the extent of radiation and downplayed the dire situation that was spiraling out of control, Japanese authorities spent the first week of the Fukushima crisis issuing conflicting and confusing reports. We were told that radiation levels were up, then down, then up, but nobody aside from those Japanese bureaucrats could verify the levels and few trusted their accuracy. The situation is under control, they told us, but workers are being evacuated. There is no danger of contamination, but stay inside and seal your doors.

The First Atomic Snow Job

The bureaucratization of horror into bland and reassuring pronouncements was to be expected, especially from an industry where misinformation is the rule. Although you might suppose that the nuclear industry’s outstanding characteristic would be its expertise, since it’s loaded with junior Einsteins who grasp the math and physics required to master the most awesomely sophisticated technology humans have ever created, think again. Based on the record, it’s most outstanding characteristic is a fundamental dishonesty. I learned that the hard way as a grassroots activist organizing opposition to a scheme hatched by a consortium of nuclear utilities to park thousands of tons of highly radioactive fuel rods, like the ones now burning at Fukushima, in my Utah backyard.

Here’s what I took away from that experience: the nuclear industry is a snake-oil culture of habitual misrepresentation, pervasive wishful thinking, deep denial, and occasional outright deception. For more than 50 years, it has habitually lied about risks and costs while covering up every violation and failure it could. Whether or not its proponents and spokespeople are dishonest or merely deluded can be debated, but the outcome — dangerous misinformation and the meltdown of honest civic discourse — remains the same, as we once again see at Fukushima.

Established at the dawn of the nuclear age, the pattern of dissemblance had become a well-worn rut long before the Japanese reactors spun out of control. In the early 1950s, the disciples of nuclear power, or the “peaceful atom” as it was then called, insisted that nuclear power would soon become so cheap and efficient that it would be offered to consumers for free. Visionaries that they were, they suggested that cities would be constructed with building materials impregnated with uranium so that snow removal would be unnecessary. Atomic bombs, they urged, should be used to carve out new coastal harbors for ships. In low doses, they swore, radiation was actually beneficial to one’s health.

Such notions and outright fantasies, as well as propaganda for a new industry and a new way of war — even if laughable today — had tragic results back then. Thousands of American GIs, for instance, were marched into ground zero just after above-ground nuclear tests had been set off to observe their responses to what military planners assumed would be the atomic battlefield of the future. Ignorance, it turns out, is not bliss, and thousands of those soldiers later became ill. Many died young.

Unwary civilians who lived downwind of America’s western testing grounds were also exposed to nuclear fallout and they, too, suffered horribly from a variety of cancers and other illnesses. Uranium miners exposed to radiation in the tunnels where they wrestled from the earth the raw materials for the nuclear age also became ill and died too soon, as did workers processing that uranium into weapons and fuel. Many of those miners were poor Navajos from my backyard in Utah where a new uranium boom, part of the so-called nuclear renaissance, was — before Fukushima — set to take shape.

How Unlikely Risks Become Inevitable

In the future, today’s low-risk claims from industry advocates will undoubtedly seem as tragically naïve as yesterday’s false claims. Yes, the likelihood that any specific nuclear power plant reactor will melt down may be slim indeed — which hardly means inconceivable — but to act as though nuclear risks are limited to the operation of power plants is misleading in the extreme. “Spent fuel” from reactors (the kind burning in Japan as I write) is produced as a plant operates, and that fuel remains super hot and dangerous for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. As we are learning to our sorrow at the Fukushima complex, such used fuel is hardly “spent.” In fact, it can be even more radioactive and dangerous than reactor cores.

Spent fuel continues to pile up in a nuclear waste stream that will have to be closely managed and monitored for eons, so long that those designing nuclear-waste repositories struggle with the problem of signage that might be intelligible in a future so distant today’s languages may not be understood. You might think that a danger virulent enough to outlast human languages would be a danger to avoid, but the hubris of the nuclear establishment is equal to its willingness to deceive.

A natural disaster, accident, or terrorist attack that might be statistically unlikely in any year or decade becomes ever more likely at the half-century, century, or half-millennium mark. Given enough time, in fact, the unlikely becomes almost inevitable. Even if you and I are not the victims of some future apocalyptic disturbance of that lethal residue, to consign our children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren to such peril is plainly and profoundly immoral.

Nuclear proponents have long wanted to limit the discussion of risk to plant operation alone, not to the storage of dangerous wastes, and they remain eager to ignore altogether the risks inherent in transporting nuclear waste (often called “mobile Chernobyl” by nuclear critics). Moving those spent fuel rods to future repositories represents a rarely acknowledged category of potential catastrophe. Just imagine a trainload of hot nuclear waste derailing catastrophically along a major urban corridor with the ensuing evacuations of nearby inhabitants. It means, in essence, that one of those Fukushima “pools” of out-of-control waste could “go nuclear” anywhere in our landscape.

Risk is about more than likelihood; it’s also about impact. If I tell you that your chances of being bitten by a mosquito as you cross my yard are one in a hundred, you’ll think of that risk differently than if I give you the same odds on a deadly pit viper. As events unfold in Japan, it’s ever clearer that we’re talking pit viper, not mosquito. You wouldn’t know it though if you were to debate nuclear industry representatives, who consistently downplay both odds and impact, and dismiss those who claim otherwise as hysterical doomsayers. Fukushima will assumedly make their task somewhat more difficult.

Hidden Costs and Wasted Subsidies

The true costs of nuclear power are another subject carefully fudged and obscured by nuclear power advocates. From its inception in federally funded labs, nuclear power has been highly subsidized. A recent report by the Union of Concerned Scientists found that “more than 30 subsidies have supported every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle from uranium mining to long-term waste storage. Added together, these subsidies have often exceeded the average market price for the power produced.” When it comes to producing electricity, these subsidies are so extensive, the report concludes, that “in some cases it would have cost taxpayers less to simply buy the kilowatts on the open market and give them away.”

If the nuclear club in Congress, led by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell, gets its way, billions more in subsidies will be forthcoming, including massive federal loan guarantees to build the next generation of nuclear plants. These are particularly important to the industry, since bankers won’t otherwise touch projects that are notorious for mammoth cost overruns, lengthy delays, and abrupt cancellations.

The Obama administration has already proposed an additional $36 billion in such guarantees to underwrite new plant construction. That includes $4 billion for the construction of two new nuclear reactors on the Gulf Coast that are to be operated in partnership with Tokyo Electric Power Company — that’s right, the very outfit that runs the Fukushima complex. Yet when I debate nuclear advocates, they always claim that, in cost terms, nuclear power outcompetes alternative sources of energy like wind and solar.

That government gravy train doesn’t just stop at new power plants either. The feds have long assumed the epic costs of waste management and storage. If another multi-billion dollar project like the now-abandoned Yucca Mountain repository in Nevada is built, it will be with dollars from taxpayers and captive ratepayers (the free market be damned). Industry spokesmen insist that subsidizing such projects will be well worth it, since they will create thousands of new jobs. Unfortunately for them, a definitive 2009 University of Massachusetts study that analyzed various infrastructure investments including wind, solar, and retrofitting buildings to conserve energy placed nuclear dead last in job creation.

Finally, the recently renewed Price-Anderson Nuclear Industries Indemnity Act limits the liability of nuclear utilities should a catastrophe like the one in Japan happen here in the United States. The costs of recovery from the Fukushima catastrophe will be astronomical. In the U.S., nuclear utilities would be off the hook for any of those costs and you, the citizen, would foot the bill. Despite their assurances that nothing can go wrong here, nuclear industry officials have made sure that in their business risk and reward are carefully separated. It’s a scenario we should all know well: private corporations take away profits when things go well, and taxpayers assume responsibility when shit happens.

Finally, nuclear power boosters like to proclaim themselves “green” and to claim that their industry is the ideal antidote to global warming since it produces no greenhouse gas emissions. In doing so, they hide the real environmental footprint of nuclear energy.

It’s quite true that no carbon dioxide comes out of power-plant smokestacks. However, maintaining any future infrastructure to handle the industry’s toxic waste is guaranteed to produce lots of carbon dioxide. So does mining uranium and processing it into fuel rods, building massive reactors from concrete and steel, and then behemoth repositories capable of holding waste for 1,000 years. Radiation from the Fukushima meltdown is now entering the Japanese food chain. How green is that?

The Watchdogs Play Dead

Over the course of nuclear power’s history, there have been scores of mishaps, accidents, violations, and problems that, chances are, you’ve never heard about. Beyond the unavoidable bad PR over the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island in 1979, the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, and now the Japanese catastrophe, the industry has an excellent record — of covering up its failures.

The co-dependent relationship between the nuclear corporations and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the federal agency charged with licensing and monitoring them, resembles the cozy relationship between the Securities Exchange Commission and Wall Street before the global economic meltdown of 2008. The NRC relies heavily on the industry’s own reports since only a small fraction of its activities can be inspected yearly.

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety in 2010,” which highlights the NRC’s haphazard record of inspection and enforcement, makes clear just why the honor system that assumes utilities will honestly report problems has never worked. It describes 14 recent serious “near miss” violations that initially went unreported. At the Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant, only 38 miles north of the New York metropolitan area, for instance, NRC inspectors ignored a leaking water containment system for 15 years.

After a leaking roof forced the shutdown of two reactors at the Calvert Cliffs nuclear facility in Maryland, plant managers admitted that it had been leaking for eight years. When Honeywell hired temporary workers to replace striking union members at its uranium refinery in Illinois, they were slipped the correct answers to a test required for those allowed to work at nuclear plants, because otherwise they had neither the knowledge nor experience to pass.

The regulation of Japan’s nuclear industry mirrors the American model. Japan’s legacy of regulatory scandals, falsified safety records, underestimated risks, and cover-ups includes an incident in 1999 when workers mixed uranium in open buckets and exposed hundreds of coworkers to radiation. Two later died. Other scandals involved hiding cracks in steam pipes from regulators in 1989, lying about a fire and explosion at a plant near Tokyo in 1997, and covering up damage to a plant from an earthquake in 2007.

In the wake of the Fukushima catastrophe, we will no doubt discover how there, too, so-called watchdogs rolled over and played dead. In recent years, in fact, the Fukushima complex had the highest accident rate of any of the big Japanese nuclear plants. We’ve already learned that an engineer who helped design and supervise the construction of the steel pressure vessel that holds the melting fuel rods in Reactor No. 4 warned that it was damaged during production. He had himself initially orchestrated a cover-up of this fact, but revealed it a decade later — only to be ignored. During the complex’s construction by General Electric some 35 years ago, Dale Bridenbaugh, a GE employee, resigned after becoming convinced that the reactors being built were seriously flawed. He, too, was ignored. The Vermont Yankee reactor in Vermont and 23 others around the U.S. replicate that design.

Stay tuned, since more examples of reckless management will surely come to light…

Risk Is Not a Math Problem

That culture of secrecy is a logical fit for an industry that is authoritarian by nature. Unlike solar or wind power, nuclear power requires massive investments of capital, highly specialized expertise, robust security, and centralized control. Any local citizen facing the impact of a uranium mine, a power plant, or a proposed waste depository will attest that the owners, operators, and regulators of the industry are remote, unresponsive, and inaccessible. They misinform because they have the power to get away with it. The absence of meaningful checks and balances enables them.

Risk, antinuclear advocates quickly learn, is not simply some complicated math problem to be resolved by experts. Risk is, above all, a question of who is put at risk for whose benefit, of how the rewards, costs, and liabilities of an activity are distributed and whether that distribution is fair. Those are political questions that citizens directly affected should be answering for themselves. When it comes to nuclear power, that doesn’t happen because the industry is undemocratic to its core. Corporate officers treat downwind stakeholders with the same contempt they reserve for honest accountings of the industry’s costs and dangers.

It may be difficult for the average citizen to unpack the technicalities of nuclear power, or understand the complex physics and engineering involved in splitting atoms to make steam to produce electricity. But most of us are good at detecting bullshit. We know when something like the nuclear industry doesn’t pass the smell test.

There is a growing realization that our carbon-based energy system is warming and endangering this planet, but replacing coal and oil with nuclear power is like trading heroin for crack — different addictions, but no less unhealthy or risky. The “nuclear renaissance,” like the “peaceful atom” before it, is the energy equivalent of a three-card monte game, involving the same capitalist crooks who gave us oil spills, bank bailouts, and so many of the other rip-offs and scams that have plagued our lives in this new century.

They are serial killers. Stop them before they kill again. Credibility counts and you don’t need a PhD or a Geiger counter to detect it.

Chip Ward was a founder of HEAL Utah, a grassroots group that has led the opposition to the disposal of nuclear waste in Utah and the construction of a new reactor next to Green River. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West and Hope’s Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Ward discusses the endless legacy of nuclear power, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Chip Ward 

Tokyo Electric to Build US Nuclear Plants: The No BS Info on Japan’s Disastrous Nuclear Operators March 14, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in Japan, Nuclear weapons/power, Texas.
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Monday 14 March 2011

by: Greg Palast, t r u t h o u t | News Analysis

Tokyo Electric to Build US Nuclear Plants: The No BS Info on Japan's Disastrous Nuclear Operators
Texas nuclear plants planned by Tokyo Electric. (Image: NINA)

I need to speak to you, not as a reporter, but in my former capacity as lead investigator in several government nuclear plant fraud and racketeering investigations.

I don’t know the law in Japan, so I can’t tell you if Tokyo Electric Power Co (TEPCO) can plead insanity to the homicides about to happen.

But what will Obama plead? The administration, just months ago, asked Congress to provide a $4 billion loan guarantee for two new nuclear reactors to be built and operated on the Gulf Coast of Texas – by TEPCO and local partners. As if the Gulf hasn’t suffered enough. Here are the facts about TEPCO and the industry you haven’t heard on CNN:

The failure of emergency systems at Japan’s nuclear plants comes as no surprise to those of us who have worked in the field.

Nuclear plants the world over must be certified for what is called “SQ” or “Seismic Qualification.” That is, the owners swear that all components are designed for the maximum conceivable shaking event, be it from an earthquake or an exploding Christmas card from al-Qaeda.

The most inexpensive way to meet your SQ is to lie. The industry does it all the time. The government team I worked with caught them once, in 1988, at the Shoreham plant in New York. Correcting the SQ problem at Shoreham would have cost a cool billion, so engineers were told to change the tests from “failed” to “passed.”

The company that put in the false safety report? Stone & Webster, now the nuclear unit of Shaw Construction, which will work with TEPCO to build the Texas plant. Lord help us.

There’s more.

Last night, I heard CNN reporters repeat the official line that the tsunami disabled the pumps needed to cool the reactors, implying that water unexpectedly got into the diesel generators that run the pumps.

These safety backup systems are the “EDGs” in nuke-speak: Emergency Diesel Generators. That they didn’t work in an emergency is like a fire department telling us they couldn’t save a building because “it was on fire.”

What dim bulbs designed this system? One of the reactors dancing with death at Fukushima Station 1 was built by Toshiba. Toshiba was also an architect of the emergency diesel system.

Now be afraid. Obama’s $4 billion bailout in the making is called the South Texas Project. It’s been sold as a red-white-and-blue way to make power domestically with a reactor from Westinghouse, a great American brand. However, the reactor will be made substantially in Japan by the company that bought the US brand name, Westinghouse – Toshiba.

I once had a Toshiba computer. I only had to send it in once for warranty work. However, it’s kind of hard to mail back a reactor with the warranty slip inside the box if the fuel rods are melted and sinking halfway to the earth’s core.

TEPCO and Toshiba don’t know what my son learned in eighth grade science class: tsunamis follow Pacific Rim earthquakes. So, these companies are real stupid, eh? Maybe. More likely is that the diesels and related systems wouldn’t have worked on a fine, dry afternoon.

Back in the day, when we checked the emergency backup diesels in America, a mind-blowing number flunked. At the New York nuclear plant, for example, the builders swore under oath that their three diesel engines were ready for an emergency. They’d been tested. The tests were faked; the diesels run for just a short time at low speed. When the diesels were put through a real test under emergency-like conditions, the crankshaft on the first one snapped in about an hour, then the second and third. We nicknamed the diesels, “Snap, Crackle and Pop.”

(Note: Moments after I wrote that sentence, word came that two of three diesels failed at the Tokai Station as well.)

In the US, we supposedly fixed our diesels after much complaining by the industry. But in Japan, no one tells TEPCO to do anything the Emperor of Electricity doesn’t want to do.

I get lots of confidential notes from nuclear industry insiders. One engineer, a big name in the field, is especially concerned that Obama waved the come-hither check to Toshiba and TEPCO to lure them to America. The US has a long history of whistleblowers willing to put themselves on the line to save the public. In our racketeering case in New York, the government only found out about the seismic test fraud because two courageous engineers, Gordon Dick and John Daly, gave our team the documentary evidence.

In Japan, it’s simply not done. The culture does not allow the salary men, who work all their lives for one company, to drop the dime.

Not that US law is a wondrous shield: both engineers in the New York case were fired and blacklisted by the industry. Nevertheless, the government (local, state, federal) brought civil racketeering charges against the builders. The jury didn’t buy the corporation’s excuses and, in the end, the plant was, thankfully, dismantled.

Am I on some kind of xenophobic anti-Nippon crusade? No. In fact, I’m far more frightened by the American operators in the South Texas nuclear project, especially Shaw. Stone & Webster, now the Shaw nuclear division, was also the firm that conspired to fake the EDG tests in New York . (The company’s other exploits have been exposed by their former consultant, John Perkins, in his book, “Confessions of an Economic Hit Man.”) If the planet wants to shiver, consider this: Toshiba and Shaw have recently signed a deal to become worldwide partners in the construction of nuclear stations.

The other characters involved at the South Texas Plant that Obama is backing should also give you the willies. But as I’m in the middle of investigating the American partners, I’ll save that for another day.

So, if we turned to America’s own nuclear contractors, would we be safe? Well, two of the melting Japanese reactors, including the one whose building blew sky high, were built by General Electric of the Good Old US of A.

After Texas, you’re next. The Obama administration is planning a total of $56 billion in loans for nuclear reactors all over America.

And now, the homicides:

CNN is only interested in body counts, how many workers burnt by radiation, swept away or lost in the explosion. These plants are now releasing radioactive steam into the atmosphere. Be skeptical about the statements that the “levels are not dangerous.” These are the same people who said these meltdowns could never happen. Over years, not days, there may be a thousand people, two thousand, ten thousand who will suffer from cancers induced by this radiation.

In my New York investigation, I had the unhappy job of totaling up post-meltdown “morbidity” rates for the county government. It would be irresponsible for me to estimate the number of cancer deaths that will occur from these releases without further information; but it is just plain criminal for the TEPCO shoguns to say that these releases are not dangerous.

Indeed, the fact that residents near the Japanese nuclear plants were not issued iodine pills to keep at the ready shows TEPCO doesn’t care who lives and who dies, whether in Japan or the USA. The carcinogenic isotopes that are released at Fukushima are already floating to Seattle with effects we simply cannot measure.

Heaven help us. Because Obama won’t.

FOOLING WITH DISASTER? Startling revelations about Three Mile Island disaster raise doubts over nuclear plant safety April 3, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Environment, Health.
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A special Facing South investigation by Sue Sturgis
www.southernstudies.org, April 2, 2009

Carter_TMI_4-1-79.gifIt was April Fool’s Day, 1979 — 30 years ago this week — 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.

Fundamental to the industry’s case for expansion is the claim that history proves nuclear power is clean and safe — a claim on which the Thompsons and others, bolstered by startling new evidence, are casting doubt.

An unlikely critic

randall_thompson_fire.jpgRandall 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.

He worked for a time at the Peach Bottom nuclear plant south of Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania’s York County, but quit the industry six months before the TMI disaster over concerns that nuclear companies were cutting corners for higher profits, with potentially dangerous results. Instead, he began publishing a skateboarding magazine with his wife Joy.

But 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.

Eventually, after a decade of having their lives ruled by TMI, the Thompsons decided to move on. Randall Thompson went to college to study computer science. Joy Thompson returned to publishing and writing.

Today they live quietly in the mountains of North Carolina where, inspired by time spent seeking refuge with a traveling circus, they have forged a new career for themselves as clowns — or what they like to call “professional fools.” As Joy Thompson wrote in the fall 2001 issue of Parabola, a journal of myth, the role of the fool is to help people “perceive the foolishness in even … the most powerful institutions,” noting the medieval court jester’s role of telling the King what others dare not.

That conviction has led the Thompsons to tell their story today.

“They haven’t told the truth yet about what happened at Three Mile Island,” says Randall Thompson. “A lot of people have died because of this accident. A lot.”

Anomalies abound

That a lot of people died because of what happened at Three Mile Island, as the Thompsons claim, is definitely not part of the official story. In fact, the commercial nuclear power industry and the government insist that despite the meltdown of almost half of the uranium fuel at TMI, there were only minimal releases of radiation to the environment that harmed no one.

For example, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the lobbying group for the U.S. nuclear industry, declares on its website that there have been “no public health or safety consequences from the TMI-2 accident.” The government’s position is the same, reflected in a fact sheet distributed today by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal agency charged with overseeing the U.S. nuclear power industry: TMI, it says, “led to no deaths or injuries to plant workers or members of the nearby community.” [The watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert offers their take on the NRC factsheet here.]

Those upbeat claims are based on the findings of the Kemeny Commission, a panel assembled by President Jimmy Carter in April 1979 to investigate the TMI disaster. Using release figures presented by Metropolitan Edison and the NRC, the commission calculated that in the month following the disaster there were releases of up to 13 million curies of so-called “noble gases” — considered relatively harmless — but only 13 to 17 curies of iodine-131, a radioactive form of the element that at even moderate exposures causes thyroid cancer. (A curie is a measure of radioactivity, with 1 curie equal to the activity of one gram of radium. For help understanding these and other terms, see the glossary at the end of this piece.)

But the official story that there were no health impacts from the disaster doesn’t jibe with the experiences of people living near TMI. On the contrary, their stories suggest that area residents actually suffered exposure to levels of radiation high enough to cause acute effects — far more than the industry and the government has acknowledged.

Some of their disturbing experiences were collected in the book Three Mile Island: The People’s Testament, which is based on interviews with 250 area residents done between 1979 and 1988 by Katagiri Mitsuru and Aileen M. Smith.

It includes the story of Jean Trimmer, a farmer who lived in Lisburn, Pa. about 10 miles west of TMI. On the evening of March 30, 1979, Trimmer stepped outside on her front porch to fetch her cat when she was hit with a blast of heat and rain. Soon after, her skin became red and itchy as if badly sunburned, a condition known as erythema. About three weeks later, her hair turned white and began falling out. Not long after, she reported, her left kidney “just dried up and disappeared” — an occurrence so strange that her case was presented to a symposium of doctors at the nearby Hershey Medical Center. All of those symptoms are consistent with high-dose radiation exposure.

There was also Bill Peters, an auto-body shop owner and a former justice of the peace who lived just a few miles west of the plant in Etters, Pa. The day after the disaster, he and his son — who like most area residents were unaware of what was unfolding nearby — were working in their garage with the doors open when they developed what they first thought was a bad sunburn. They also experienced burning in their throats and tasted what seemed to be metal in the air. That same metallic taste was reported by many local residents and is another symptom of radiation exposure, commonly reported in cancer patients receiving radiation therapy.

Peters soon developed diarrhea and nausea, blisters on his lips and inside his nose, and a burning feeling in his chest. Not long after, he had surgery for a damaged heart valve. When his family evacuated the area a few days later, they left their four-year-old German shepherd in their garage with 200 pounds of dog chow, 50 gallons of water and a mattress. When they returned a week later, they found the dog dead on the mattress, his eyes burnt completely white. His food was untouched, and he had vomited water all over the garage. They also found four of their five cats dead — their eyes also burnt white — and one alive but blinded. Peters later found scores of wild bird carcasses scattered over their property.

Similar stories surfaced in The People of Three Mile Island, a book by documentary photographer Robert Del Tredici. He found local farmers whose cattle and goats died, suffered miscarriages and gave birth to deformed young after the incident; whose chickens developed respiratory problems and died; and whose fruit trees abruptly lost all their leaves. Local residents also collected evidence of deformed plants, some of which were examined by James Gunckel, a botanist and radiation expert with Brookhaven National Laboratory and Rutgers University.

“There were a number of anomalies entirely comparable to those induced by ionizing radiation — stem fasciations, growth stimulation, induction of extra vegetative buds and stem tumors,” he swore in a 1984 affidavit.

Scientists say these kinds of anomalies simply aren’t explained by official radiation release estimates.

Evidence of harm

wing_tmi_cancer_map.gifThe 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.

That survey came to the attention of the industry-financed TMI Public Health Fund, created in 1981 as part of a settlement for economic losses from the disaster. The fund’s scientific advisors verified the Aamodts’ calculations and launched a more comprehensive study of TMI-related cancer deaths led by a team of scientists from Columbia University. The researchers found an association between estimated radiation doses received by area residents and instances of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, lung cancer, leukemia and all cancers combined. Crucially, however, the researchers decided there wasn’t “convincing evidence” that TMI radiation releases were linked to the increase in cancers in the area because of the “low estimates of radiation exposure.” The paper did not consider what conclusions could be drawn if those “low estimates” turned out to be wrong.

By the time the Columbia research was published in the early 1990s, a class-action lawsuit was underway involving about 2,000 plaintiffs claiming that the radiation emissions were much larger than admitted by the government and industry. (The federal courts eventually rejected that suit, though hundreds of out-of-court settlements totaling millions of dollars have been reached with victims, including the parents of children born with birth defects.)

Consulting for the plaintiffs’ attorneys, the Aamodts contacted Dr. Steven Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health in Chapel Hill to provide support for the plaintiffs. Dr. Wing was reluctant to get involved because — as he wrote in a 2003 paper about his experience — “allegations of high radiation doses at TMI were considered by mainstream radiation scientists to be a product of radiation phobia or efforts to extort money from a blameless industry.” But impressed with the Aamodts’ compelling if imperfect evidence, Wing agreed to look at whether there were connections between radiation exposure from TMI and cancer rates.

Wing reanalyzed the Columbia scientists’ data, looking at cancer rates before the TMI disaster to control for other possible risk factors in the 10-mile area. His peer-reviewed results, published in 1997, found positive relationships between accident dose estimates and rates of leukemia, lung cancer and all cancers. Where the Columbia study found a 30 percent average increase in lung cancer risk among one group of residents, for example, Wing found an 85 percent increase. And while the Columbia researchers found little or no increase in adult leukemias and a statistically unreliable increase in childhood cases, Wing found that people downwind during the most intense releases were eight to 10 times more likely on average than their neighbors to develop leukemia.

Dr. Wing reflected on his findings at a symposium in Harrisburg marking the 30-year anniversary of the Three Mile Island disaster last week.

“I believe this is very good evidence that releases were thousands of times greater than the story we’ve been told,” he said. “As we think about the current plans to open more nuclear reactors, when we hear — which we hear often — that no one was harmed at Three Mile Island, we really should question that.”

Documenting discrepancies

Randall and Joy Thompson couldn’t agree more. If anything, they think Dr. Wing’s findings understate the impact of Three Mile Island because they’re based on low-ball estimates of radiation releases.

“Given what he was allowed to know or could figure out, he did a slam-bang job of it,” Joyce Thompson says.

In 1995, the Thompsons — with the help of another health physics expert who was also hired to monitor radiation after the TMI disaster, David Bear (formerly Bloombaum) – prepared a report analyzing the Kemeny Commission findings. Their research, which hasn’t been covered by any major media, documents a series of inconsistencies and omissions in the government’s account.

For example, the official story is that the TMI incident released only 13 to 17 curies of dangerous iodine into the outside environment, a tiny fraction of the 13 million curies of less dangerous radioactive gases officials say were released, primarily xenon. Such a number would seem small compared with, for example, the 1986 nuclear accident at Chernobyl, which released anywhere from 13 million to 40 million curies of iodine and is linked to 50,000 cases of thyroid cancer, according to World Health Organization estimates.

But the Thompsons and Bear point out that the commission’s own Technical Assessment Task Force, in a separate volume, had concluded that iodine accounted for 8 to 12 percent of the total radioactive gases leaked from Three Mile Island. Conservatively assuming the 13 million curie figure was the total amount of radioactive gases released rather than just the xenon portion, and then using the Task Force’s own 8 to 12 percent estimate of the proportion that was iodine, they point out that “the actual figure for Iodine release would be over 1 million curies” — a much more substantial public health threat.

In another instance, the Kemeny Commission claimed that there were 7.5 million curies of iodine present in TMI’s primary loop, the contained system that delivers cooling water to the reactor. But a laboratory analysis done on March 30 found a higher concentration of iodine in the reactor water, which would put the total amount of iodine present — and which could potentially leak into the environment — at 7.65 million curies.

“Thus, while the apparent difference between 7.5 and 7.65 seems inconsiderable at first glance,” the Thompson/Bear report states, “this convenient rounding off served to ‘lose’ a hundred and fifty thousand curies of radioactive Iodine.”

They also offer evidence of atmospheric releases of dangerously long-lived radioactive particles such as cesium and strontium — releases denied by the Kemeny Commission but indicated in the Thompsons’ own post-disaster monitoring and detailed in the report — and show that there were pathways for the radiation to escape into the environment. They demonstrate that the plant’s radiation filtration system was totally inadequate to handle the large amounts of radiation released from the melted fuel and suggest that the commission may have arbitrarily set release estimates at levels low enough to make the filtration appear adequate.

Shockingly, they also report that when readings from the dosimeters used to monitor radiation doses to workers and the public were logged, doses of beta radiation — one of three basic types along with alpha and gamma — were simply not recorded, which Joy Thompson knew since she did the recording. But Thompson’s monitoring equipment also indicated that beta radiation represented about 90 percent of the radiation to which TMI’s neighbors were exposed in April 1979, which means an enormous part of the disaster’s public health risk may have been wiped from the record.

Finally, in a separate analysis the Thompsons point to discrepancies in government and industry accounts of the disaster that suggest the TMI Unit 2 suffered a scram failure — that is, a breakdown of the emergency shutoff system. That would mean the nuclear reaction spiraled out of control and therefore posed a much greater danger than the official story allows.

The Thompsons aren’t the only ones who have produced evidence that the radiation releases from TMI were much higher than the official estimates. Arnie Gundersen — a nuclear engineer and former nuclear industry executive turned whistle-blower — has done his own analysis, which he shared for the first time at a symposium in Harrisburg last week.

“I think the numbers on the NRC’s website are off by a factor of 100 to 1,000,” he said.

Exactly how much radiation was released is impossible to say, since onsite monitors immediately went off the scale after the explosion. But Gundersen points to an inside report by an NRC manager who himself estimated the release of about 36 million curies — almost three times as much as the NRC’s official estimate. Gundersen also notes that industry itself has acknowledged there was a total of 10 billion curies of radiation inside the reactor containment. Using the common estimate that a tenth of it escaped, that means as much as a billion curies could have been released to the environment.

gundersen_pressure_spike_slide.jpgGundersen also offered compelling evidence based on pressure monitoring data from the plant that shortly before 2 p.m. on March 28, 1979 there was a hydrogen explosion inside the TMI containment building that could have released significant amounts of radiation to the environment. The NRC and industry to this day deny there was an explosion, instead referring to what happened as a “hydrogen burn.” But Gundersen noted that affidavits from four reactor operators confirm that the plant manager was aware of a dramatic pressure spike after which the internal pressure dropped to outside pressure; he also noted that the control room shook and doors were blown off hinges. In addition, Gundersen reported that while Metropolitan Edison would have known about the pressure spike immediately from monitoring equipment, it didn’t notify the NRC about what had happened until two days later.

Gundersen maintains under the NRC’s own rules an evacuation should have been ordered on the disaster’s first day, when calculated radiation exposures in the town of Goldsboro, Pa. were as high as 10 rems an hour compared to an average cumulative annual background dose of about 0.125 rems. No evacuation order was ever issued, though Gov. Dick Thornburgh did issue an evacuation advisory on March 30 for pregnant women and preschool children within 5 miles of the plant. The government also did not distribute potassium iodide to the public, which would have protected people from the health-damaging effects of radioactive iodine.

Lessons for the future?

When asked by Facing South to respond to these allegations, a spokeswoman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission did not address them directly, instead stating that it continues to stand by the Kemeny Commission report. The NRC further insists that the radiation releases from Three Mile Island had only “negligible effects” on the physical health of humans and the environment, citing other reports from federal agencies [For a PDF of the NRC's response to Facing South, see here.]

But Gundersen and the Thompsons argue such claims don’t address new findings at odds with the government’s account.

“I believe [the] data shows releases from TMI were significantly greater than reported by the federal government,” Gundersen says.

They also say their findings that releases were potentially much larger have important ramifications for current plans to expand the nuclear power industry.

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. The Atlanta-based Southern Co. plans to begin site work this summer for two new reactors at the Vogtle site in Georgia, where state lawmakers recently approved legislation forcing ratepayers to foot the bill for those facilities up front. Florida and South Carolina residents have also begun paying new utility charges to finance planned reactors, USA Today reports. Plans are in the works as well for new reactors in Virginia, North Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.

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 and Gundersen 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.

Other nuclear watchdogs have also raised concerns that the NRC’s standards for protection against severe accidents like TMI remain inadequate. In a December 2007 report titled “Nuclear Power in a Warming World,” the Union of Concerned Scientists notes that the worst accident the current generation of reactors was designed to withstand involves only partial melting of the reactor core but no breach of containment. And the NRC requires operators of plants found to be vulnerable to severe accidents to fix the problem “only if a cost-benefit analysis shows that the financial benefit of a safety backfit – determined by assigning a dollar value to the number of projected cancer deaths that would result from a severe accident – outweighs the cost of fixing the problem,” the report states.

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.”

(Images from top: Photo of President Jimmy Carter leaving Three Mile Island for Middletown, Pa. on April 1, 1979 from the National Archives and Records Administration; photo of Randall Thompson swallowing fire by William Mosher; map showing increases in cancer rates in the TMI area after the disaster courtesy of Dr. Steve Wing; graph showing dramatic spike in pressure inside the TMI containment on March 28, 1979 courtesy of Arnie Gundersen.)

* * *

NUKE-SPEAK: Glossary of terms used in this story

Cesium – an element occurring naturally in rocks, soil and dust. The breakdown of uranium fuel in nuclear reactors produces radioactive forms including cesium-134 and cesium-137, exposure to which can cause nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, bleeding and death.

Curie – a measure of radioactivity, with 1 curie equal to the activity of one gram of radium.

Erythema – redness of the skin due to capillary congestion, it can be caused by radiation exposure.

Iodine-131 – a radioactive element produced in nuclear reactors. Absorbed into the body, it accumulates in the thyroid gland, which controls metabolism, and can cause cancer and other diseases.

Kemeny Commission – a panel created in April 1979 by President Jimmy Carter to investigate the Three Mile Island disaster. It was chaired by John G. Kemeny, president of Dartmouth College, and released its final report on Oct. 31, 1979.

Noble gases – a group of chemical elements that occur in nature in a number of isotopes, some of which are unstable and emit radiation.

Nuclear fission – the splitting of an atom accompanied by the release of energy. In a nuclear reactor, the fission energy is converted to heat used to generate electricity via steam turbines.

Nuclear meltdown – a severe nuclear reactor problem that occurs when there is a loss of control over the reactor core, causing the radioactive fuel to melt and release highly radioactive and other toxic elements.

Nuclear reactor core - the part of a nuclear reactor containing the nuclear fuel; it is where nuclear reactions take place.

Radiation, ionizing – subatomic particles or electromagnetic waves energetic enough to detach electrons from atoms or molecules. It includes alpha particles, beta particles and gamma rays.

Radiation poisoning or sickness – damage to organ tissue due to excessive exposure to ionizing radiation. Acute symptoms include erythema, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss and internal bleeding.

Radium – an extremely radioactive chemical element that was at one time used in self-luminous paints for watch dials, leading to radiation-related illnesses in dial painters.

Rem –  an acronym that stands for “roentgen equivalent in man,” this is a unit for measuring absorbed doses of radiation equivalent to one roentgen of X-rays or gamma rays.

Roentgen — a unit of measurement for ionizing radiation.

Scram – an emergency shutdown of a nuclear reactor, also referred to as a “trip,” achieved by inserting neutron-absorbing control rods into the reactor core.

Strontium – a highly reactive chemical element whose radioactive isotope, strontium-90, is produced by nuclear fission. It takes the place of calcium in bones and can lead to bone disorders including cancer.

Three Mile Island Units 1 and 2 – the two reactors at the commercial nuclear power plant located south of Harrisburg, Pa. on an island in the Susquehanna River. TMI-2 suffered a partial meltdown on March 28, 1979 and is no longer in operation. Originally built by General Public Utilities Corp. and operated by Metropolitan Edison, TMI-1 is now operated by Chicago-based Exelon while Unit 2 is owned by Met-Ed.

Uranium – a radioactive element used by fuel in nuclear reactors.

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