Logo Click BACK to return to Basecamp
Lost Teachers
Search Info
White beveled edge

Meet Rebecca

Rebecca Archive

Cool Links
Washington Post Articles

Meltdown at TMI from PBS

Search the PBS TeacherSource

Great Book:
Killing Our Own



6-hooved deer, Glowing Fish, and Gigantic Radishes... Oh My!

We picked this dispatch as today's "Best."
Click here to have future picks e-mailed to you!

We quelled our fears and went up close for a look.  Here's the layout of TMI

The drive up Route 441 from York, PA is a beautiful one. The small road winds through tiny Pennsylvania towns and wide open spaces of green farmland. Jen and I were laughing and joking as we traveled north, and not thinking much about the assignment at hand. Until, that is, we rounded a curve and Jen brought the car to a screeching stop. Our eyes widened as we stared in amazement at the enormous, concrete nuclear reactors that loomed above the farmhouses in front of us. These hulking structures at Three Mile Island, topped with clouds of white steam, represented everything we had ever feared about nuclear energy. We gaped at them, then turned to each other and half-joked that we didn't want to drive one bit further towards these energy giants.


Radio-Active Bar & Grill

When I thought about nuclear energy, I thought of radiation and mutations. Visions of three legged creatures emerging from a frothy neon green river appeared before my eyes. I saw the Horrors of Hiroshima and Homer Simpson's bubbling cartoon stream all wrapped into one. Frankly, nuclear energy scared me. But here we were, at the site of America's worst nuclear disaster yet, assigned to find out what happened.


Were my images fact or fiction, or a little of both?

The truth is no one knows. The problem with nuclear radiation is that scientists, politicians and the affected public simply can't agree on just how dangerous differing amounts of radiation are, which makes the disaster at Three Mile Island still a hot topic of contention more than twenty years later.


Here's what all the discussion is about:

In 1979 a series of mishaps occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant to create the worst nuclear accident in U.S. History. In brief, a stuck relief valve in the plant's Unit 2 reactor released radioactive water into the atmosphere as steam. When the technicians tried to fix the problem, they actually made it worse. By shutting off the cooling water to the reactor core, they caused a partial 'meltdown'. Because of the fear of radiation leakage, around 140,000 people had to be evacuated from the surrounding area.

Three Mile Island sits in this river.  Want to go fishing?

We talked to Cherry Brendel, a local resident who lived through the accident, to find out how she was affected.

I was doing day care in my home at the time. I had my own small children, was watching two other little children, and we had sesame street on the television. They started making announcements over the radio and news that pregnant women and children within a ten mile radius should evacuate, but nothing came over the local TV station that we were watching. So it wasn't until one of the mothers came to pick her kid up that I knew something had happened at TMI. Right after she showed up, my husband called. He told me to get the kids and pack up our stuff. He told me that we had to leave. We drove that afternoon to a cabin 50 miles away.
Cherry Brendel has felt safe enough to stay by TMI.  Would you?

I asked her what information the authorities told her at that time.

Nobody knew how bad it was. They made it sound like it was nothing. They'd say things like, "Well, we think that maybe, just for safety reasons, women and children should leave the area." That really made me mad -- how mundane they were about the whole evacuation.

After a week, Cheryl and her family came back, and they have lived in the area ever since. I wondered aloud if she'd seen anything unusual around TMI after the accident. "You hear things," she tells me, but she's not ready to link them directly to excess radiation. She's chosen to live by the reactor, and doesn't want to live in fear. But the stories she tells makes me wonder.

I was diagnosed with cervical cancer in 1990. My youngest daughter, the seventeen-year-old, had cervical cancer. They tell me it's because of my smoking. That [cancer] can happen anywhere, to anyone. Of course, there's that deer they found a few months ago with 6 hooves - 2 on each of the back legs. And my mother always jokes about the radishes in my garden. They grew like you wouldn't believe. She'd tell me they were so big because of TMI.

Although Cheryl quickly assures me there's no connection between these phenomenon and TMI, she does wonder if there's more to come. "I still worry about [what might happen to] them," she tells me, referring to her three daughters, who are now adults.

"What else has changed around here since the accident?" I ask.

Definitely lots of people moved away, and the property values around here went down big time. You couldn't sell property here for years and years.
Alarms like this one would sound in case of another nuclear emergency

So why did Cheryl choose to stay?

I'm not afraid of it. I'd never really thought about the dangers before or after the accident, but they tell me it's safe. There are lots of precautions now, and the TMI staff is very concerned about the people who live here. They send out monthly newsletters. I was told they have sensors set up around here, and that radiation levels are supposed to be relatively low. I don't really think about it, but I can't imagine going out to my yard and seeing the counter [on the radiation sensor] go up, and being out there and breathing the air.

What bothers me is that even though there are newspapers and radiation sensors now, the actual effects of the partial meltdown in the last days of March, 1979 are still unknown... or perhaps hidden. Although 2,000 lawsuits have been filed by area residents claiming to have been effected by the radiation, none of them have actually been heard in court yet. While the politicians and energy officials claim that no one has died because of the accident, abnormally high infant mortality rates in the area tell a different story. There are also people who have just become sick within the past few years.

The Washington Post posed the essential question that no one seems able to answer: What are the long-term health risks to individuals exposed to low levels of radiation?

Nuclear energy:  friend, or foe?

We don't have to just look at TMI for clues, since there are people at high risk for radiation exposure around the world. For evidence, we can look at any number of sources. There are the effects of the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to consider, and the people living around the Russian Chernobyl disaster. There are the military men and women who are involved in the testing of those weapons. There are the people involved in any stage of the nuclear creation process: those working at mining and waste storage sites, uranium processing plants, and nuclear power reactors. And there are the people who eat, work, and sleep near nuclear weapons testing sites today. (Although only two have ever been used in warfare, our government alone has detonated over 700 nuclear bombs as "tests" since 1945. Can anyone tell me why?)

That's a lot of people with potential exposure to harmful radiation! So where are the scientific studies? Child development specialist Dr. Benjamin Spock writes that "the government's own record of health studies has been stained with serious scandal and obvious cover-up." It seems that no matter how many cases of cancer, deformities, animal abnormalities, and infant deaths are reported, "the government response has... been a condescending and blanket denial" that radiation is responsible.

Jen joins George Darling in front of the training simulator for TMI staff

With possible accidents like Three Mile Island, why do we have nuclear power plants at all? We were told by George Darling at the TMI training center that although it's expensive to start up a nuclear energy plant, it is really cheap to maintain. That means lower, more consistent energy prices for the public. But nuclear energy is dangerously destructive and risky to use. There are no good ways to dispose of the extremely radioactive spent fuel, yet we continue to create more and more. Dr. Spock promotes the end to nuclear energy all together. He advises that there are many other options, and that our government needs to "provide leadership for energy conservation and the development of nonpolluting, renewable resources such as the sun, the wind, the tides, [and] the burning of wood" instead.

Were we to take Dr. Spock's advice and demand a nationwide change, mothers like Cheryl could stop worrying that the long-term effects of radiation are poisoning their daughters. And there would be no cause for the poor-taste t-shirts that were printed after the accident in Pennsylvania: "I survived Three Mile Island... I Think."


Please email me at: rebecca@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Stephanie - Your life is in danger if your neighbor is a toxic dump
Nick - Two years in a tree can make you a believer, and change the world
Making A Difference - Save the world, Superhero! It's going down faster than a speeding bullet
Stephen - Chainsaws and bulldozers are no match for crusaders for "living museums"
Stephen - How many Styrofoam cups does it take to kill off all the animals in the world?