Jul 1 1993

Three Mile Island: ‘They Say Nothing Happened’

According to the TV program What Happened?, broadcast on NBC earlier this year (3/16/93), “the system worked” during the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island (TMI). Although there were problems with “communication,” the show reported, with the undamaged unit of TMI back in operation, most people in the area now live happily with the TMI facility.

“Today in Harrisburg life goes on, the incident is now in the past and most people are comfortable that it could never be repeated,” the narrator of the program, produced by Hearst Entertainment for NBC, declares. Then local resident Debbie Baker says, “I’m not as afraid of it as I used to be.”

But that isn’t all Baker said to the show’s producers. “What they did was horrible,” she told Extra!. “I can understand editing, but here the most crucial statements were edited out to make it look like everything was hunky dory.” She said her full statement was that she is not as afraid since the Three Mile Island Citizens Monitoring Network, a group she works with, had set up an extensive network of radiation monitors around the plant. Baker said that the crew from What Happened? was well aware that she remains extremely uncomfortable with TMI.

In fact, a son Baker bore nine months after the accident has Down’s syndrome, and the Metropolitan Edison Company, which owns TMI, agreed to give the Baker family $1.1 million in a settlement of a lawsuit stemming from the TMI accident. This was only one of nearly 200 settlements that Metropolitan Edison has made to families who have suffered injury, birth defects and death because of the 1979 accident. Thousands of cases are still pending. When Extra! asked Bob Jaffe, executive producer of What Happened?, why the show hadn’t mentioned any of the settlements, he said he had “never heard of this sort of thing.”

But Jaffe stressed that “our story was what happened, not who it happened to.” To tell that story, What Happened? relied on Dr. Robert Long, who runs the TMI plant, and on Dr. Roger McCarthy, chief executive officer of Failure Analysis Associates, a California-based consulting firm that has worked extensively for the nuclear power industry.

McCarthy told Extra! that “right now society spends far too much on nuclear safety.” “It’s not a question of whether we are going to use nuclear energy,” he said. “The sun is a fusion reactor with no shielding on it…. What we’re really talking about is whether we are going to bring the nuclear reactions closer so we can control them.”

When Extra! pointed out that no scientists critical of nuclear power appeared in the program, Jaffe responded: “That is correct. Maybe there is some misunderstanding. That show was not a journalistic show but an entertainment show to look into and to find out the reason and cause of various accidents and incidents.”

He noted that the show opens with a disclaimer: “The following program contains recreations of the documented events and at times incorporates actual footage from these same events. This program is not a news broadcast.”

A key issue involving the TMI accident was why the core meltdown didn’t go completely out of control. Dr. Richard E. Webb, a nuclear engineer and the author of The Accident Hazards of Nuclear Power Plants, said that only “multiple strokes of luck” prevented a bigger disaster: that the potentially explosive hydrogen bubble finally dissipated; that a critical mass of plutonium did not accumulate; that the reactor had only been in operation a short time, so its temperature was minimal.

However, What Happened?‘s explanation relies on Failure Analysis Associates’ McCarthy, who declares:- “In retrospect…the back-up systems in the plant worked successfully and saved the plant literally, the system worked.”

The program chides the press for scaring people. An actor portraying a control room engineer informs local officials that “there is no release of radiation off-site at this time.” But, the program says, “four hours after the accident, a Harrisburg radio station broke a story about radioactivity leaking into the atmosphere, and the drama that resulted caused the residents around Three Mile Island much concern as well as confusion.” By the following day, the “problem of accurate communication intensified,” with more “exaggerated” reports of an “uncontrolled release.” But then, the “rumors had subsided. The people began to realize that the system was working.”

Near the end of the program, McCarthy offers this observation: “The situation at Three Mile Island became as large as it did, in part, because of the undue fear that I think that people have for nuclear power.” And the narrator concludes that “emergency procedures have been improved so the community will be better informed in the unusual case of an accident.”

Harvey Wasserman, co-author of Killing Our Own: The Disaster of America’s Experience With Atomic Radiation, stressed that the What Happened? account comes amid virtually complete inactivity by U.S. media in following up the Three Mile Island accident. (Wasserman has written about the aftermath of TMI for Harrowsmith—5-6/87—and other publications.)

“Less than five reporters have gone to TMI since the accident and done basic research,” Wasserman said. “The media have just played along with the lie that no one died at Three Mile Island.” Wasserman said it was telling that the What Happened? account was carried by NBC, owned by General Electric, a major manufacturer of nuclear power plants.

“The Three Mile Island accident was the largest cover-up of an industrial accident in U.S. history,” said Wasserman, “and U.S. media have done no follow-up. And now, 14 years after the accident, is the time you will see even more cancers emerging.”

“I’ve been finding cancers at every other house,” Jane Lee, who lives less than four miles from TMI, told Extra!. She has been doing house-to-house surveying for years. “Now we have raging cancer with the latency period having come due. All people could talk about is cancer…. Leukemia, breast cancer, prostate, muscle cancer. You name it, people got it.”

When she saw the What Happened? program, “steam came out of my ears,” Lee said. “It’s typical: taking the industry’s public relations line that nothing happened at Three Mile Island. Here’s the damn core that melts, radioactivity pouring into the atmosphere, and an epidemic of cancer. And they say nothing happened.”

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, is the author of Cover Up:What You Are Not Supposed to Know About Nuclear Power. He often writes for Extra! on nuclear-related issues.