Nuclear, Free!

by Howard Fienberg
December 2, 2002

At 4 A.M. on March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island (TMI) Unit 2 nuclear power plant malfunctioned. The reactor suffered a partial meltdown, but it could not compare to the one suffered by news media, anti-nuclear activists and public opinion. It should be easier now, after more than two decades, to gauge the impact of the TMI accident. Was there a measurable public health impact? Did it lead to an epidemic of early deaths from radiation-induced cancers?


Judge Sylvia Rambo of the U.S. District Court in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, trained a skeptical eye on the effects of TMI when faced with the anti-nuclear vanguard - trial lawyers. In June, 1996, she dismissed a class action lawsuit linking the accident to adverse health effects: "The parties to the instant action... have had nearly two decades to muster evidence in support of their respective cases... The paucity of proof alleged in support of plaintiff's case is manifest. The court has searched the record for any and all evidence, which construed in the light more favorable to plaintiffs creates a genuine issue of material fact warranting submission of their claims to a jury. This effort has been in vain." Translation from legalese to English: after all this time, there is not the slightest evidence of so much as a cold linked to the TMI accident.


Both the U.S. Department of Energy and the state Department of Environmental Resources tested hundreds of air samples in the vicinity of TMI shortly after the accident. They discovered only average levels of radioactivity. Writing a few years after TMI, University of Pittsburgh professor Bernard Cohen asserted that, "the average person living near Three Mile Island received as much extra radiation from that accident as he would get from a one-week visit to Denver." Indeed, separating the impact of any radiation emitted from TMI from the many other sources of background radiation would be quite difficult.


The results of a study released at the beginning of November should effectively close the book on the TMI story. (The study will be published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal, but was posted online early). Conducting a 20-year follow-up study of mortality data on the 32,135 people resident within a five-mile radius of TMI (within two months of the accident), researchers at the University of Pittsburgh found no increase in overall deaths from cancer. Lead researcher Dr. Evelyn O. Talbott explained they found "virtually no difference" when they compared observed cancers with the expected rates, after controlling for background radiation, educational level and smoking. The study covered what Talbott said was the normal latency period for most cancers. Talbott's team found a slight increase in the risk for lymphomas, leukemia and other blood system cancers among men exposed to radiation released by the accident, but conceded that it could have easily arisen from later exposure to other potentially cancerous agents or risk factors. "You would expect, really by chance, when you do 20 or more analyses, you're going to have a couple that by random chance come up," she said.


The results of this latest study further discredit the main pillar of our fears of radiation: the linear no-threshold hypothesis (LNTH). The LNTH presumes that with each incremental rise in radiation exposure, the health effects will increase by an equal amount. It also assumes that any exposure to radiation is harmful to human health, even the smallest measurable amount (hence the "no-threshold"). But many scientists question the validity of the hypothesis. In April 1999, the American Nuclear Society concluded that "there is insufficient scientific evidence to support" the LNTH "in the projection of the health effects of low-level radiation." In addition, there is a growing body of evidence showing that exposure to low level radiation may provide some benefits to health.


Nuclear power has been trumpeted for decades as a threat to our health for decades, but it never spawned the development of any Godzilla-like disaster. Even the meltdown of the Chernobyl plant in 1986, one with few of the safeguards and protections of American plants, killed only 41 people, not the 2,000, 15,000 or 110,000 rashly predicted at the time.

There is no evidence that TMI led to increased cancer risk or that American nuclear plants are linked to local increased infant mortality (rates actually have decreased in their vicinity). Nuclear power is pretty safe and our country's worst nuclear "accident" seemed to have no practical health effects. Anti-nuclear activists appear to be running out of viable targets. Given the increased threat to our fuel sources from unsteady or unsavory suppliers in the Middle East, Americans may not stand for anti-nuclear grandstanding for very long. Perhaps it is time for the activists to find a new crusade--maybe even one with scientific backing.

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