Photo: National Archives and Records Administration
During the nuclear crisis at Japana's Fukushima plant, there have been endless comparisons to both Chernobyl and Three Mile Island. But there have been fewer good, in-depth pieces that examine the fallout of through the lens of the communities that suffered through them. Yet this is surely the best way to gain insight into the potentially incipient health crises that may affect the communities surrounding Fukushima -- and insight into the risks nuclear power poses to human health in general. On the Issues Magazine has a must read in-depth investigative report on the thousands of people in Harrisburg, PA, who suffered a variety of illnesses and health woes in the wake of the meltdown -- especially women, who in addition to seeing higher rates of cancer, suffered an increase in still births, birth defects, miscarriages, and pregnancy complications. And perhaps the worst part of the ordeal was that the communities were offered no assistance at all, neither the government nor the utility company that operated the plant on Three Mile Island. On the Issues reports:
"Nearly four years after the Three Mile Island disaster, citizens frustrated over the lack of help from public health authorities and other government officials went door-to-door to gather health data themselves. Mary Osborne, a longtime Harrisburg resident, was one of the survey takers. "Our door-to-door studies showed horrendous problems everywhere," she said. "At almost every household or every other household we found cancer or some kind of emergency problem, and in some cases, different family members had different cancers." Osborne also noted significant numbers of women who had pregnancy problems, babies with low birth weights, neonatal and newborn deaths, and Downs syndrome.Indeed, thanks to the efforts of volunteers in the community, concerned scientists and doctors, it became clear to community members that there were a multitude of devastating health woes caused by the errant radiation loosed in the accident -- to this day, some 2,000 deaths and injury claims have been filed citing the Three Mile Island meltdown.
I know that there's a popular radiation chart going around that seems to show that small amounts of radiation aren't very harmful, and that the general consensus seems to be that the health impacts of Three Mile island weren't that grave. But the work done by scientists and researchers in the aftermath of Three Mile Island -- which purports to show, among other things, that authorities have drastically lowballed the amount of radiation released in the event -- indicates that we should remain exceptionally cautious both regarding the accuracy of our radiation measurements, and the potential effects that even lower amounts of radiation may have.
Since nuclear power plants are running rather close to communities around the world -- and sometimes right next to active fault lines and without working emergency systems -- perhaps the most immediate action we can take is to ensure that there's a working system for providing health assistance to communities located near nuke plants should the need arise. And, of course, to the heroic Japanese workers who've toiled tirelessly to contain the meltdown. To my mind, the long term action is still to start moving away from nuclear fission power altogether -- and towards safer clean energy like solar and wind.
UPDATE: Let it be noted that numerous other studies have concluded that the radiation released wasn't enough to be harmful, and that many of the health woes suffered by those in Harrisburg weren't attributed to the radiation from Three Mile Island. Thank you to readers for pointing this out; the headline has been changed to reflect this. I still believe that there is more gray area here than is being let on; the Union of Concerned Scientists holds firm that much more radiation was loosed in Three Mile Island than the currently recorded level -- there's still plenty of reason to stay questioning and alert, and to keep an open book on the dangers of radiation exposure.
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More on Japan's Nuclear Crisis
Light at the End of the Tunnel for Japan's Nuclear Crisis?
Radiation Dose Chart by XKCD