Lesson from TMI- Expect the Unexpected


Three Mile Island: Writing the Nuclear Accident Playbook

By Arnie Gundersen

 People today who are familiar with social media think that TMI means “Too Much Information”. But to me, and anyone listening to the news in 1979, TMI will always represent the disaster at Three Mile Island, when the public received too little information, not too much.


 At the time of the nuclear disaster at TMI, there were plans to build more than 200 nuclear plants in the US, with some projections topping 1,000.  Today, less than 100 nuclear plants are operating in the US.  During the 1970’s, the total amount invested in those early plants easily exceeded one trillion dollars.  If the public became fearful of nuclear power, then the nuclear industry, investors, and banks that had loaned money would face huge losses, so the nuclear industry and nuclear regulators tried desperately to minimize the significance of what was happening at the crippled reactor.

 The pattern of denial created by the nuclear industry during the TMI meltdown had at least five steps in its playbook:

  1. Make it appear that “authorities” have the situation under control.
  2. Delay any evacuation orders for as long as possible.
  3. Claim radiation releases are much lower than they actually are.
  4. Claim radiation exposures are acceptable and that no one will die.
  5. And lastly, minimize conflicting information given to the press through paid off experts.

 The formula for damage control at TMI was designed by the nuclear industry composed a one size fits all “playbook” the industry has followed for all nuclear catastrophes since TMI.  Comments made during the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi by utility owner Tokyo Electric could easily mimic those made at Chernobyl and TMI!  When Maggie and I saw these old tricks being played again at Fukushima Daiichi, we dedicated ourselves to ensuring that the public has an accessible resource on which to rely that provides accurate information, and thus the Fairewinds videos were born. 

 In this video posted to commemorate the TMI disaster, I discuss the pattern of denial regarding nuclear power plant failures and meltdowns, not just for TMI but also for Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi as well.  We at Fairewinds Energy Education hope you will watch it and think about sharing the true facts with others.

Special Edition Book Recommendation:



Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer by Helen Caldicott

Review by Caroline Phillips, Fairewinds Administrator

A trained physician with four decades of anti-nuclear activism under her belt, Dr. Helen Caldicott is well versed and knowledgeable when it comes to the costs and consequences of nuclear power. In her book titled, Nuclear Power Is Not the Answer, Dr. Caldicott discusses the nuclear industry and the government’s failure to respond correctly in the face of nuclear tragedy as first demonstrated in the meltdown at Three Mile Island (TMI) that began March 28, 1979.

Dr. Caldicott quotes an admission at the time of the TMI disaster by Joseph Hendrie, former chairman of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), “ We are operating almost totally in the blind, [Governor Thornburgh’s] information is ambiguous, mine is nonexistent and - I don’t know- it’s like a couple of blind men staggering around making decisions (p. 67).”

It is noted that we know large amounts of radioactivity escaped from TMI, however, the nuclear industry and the government failed to collect release estimates of specific toxic isotopes. This means that to this day, there is no available information as to what specifically was released nor the quantity of how much radiation was released. Dr. Caldicott points out that the gamma radiation monitor on the auxiliary building where all the radiation escaped was not designed to measure high concentrations of radiation and maxed out in the earliest stages of meltdown. “Measurements of noble gas were not commenced until April 5, some eight days after the meltdown first began,” Dr. Caldicott writes. “No alpha or beta radiation was ever measured. It is known that radioactive emissions from Three Mile Island travelled long distances. For instance, Xenon 133 was measured in Albany, NY, at the end of March and early April 1979, 375 km from the reactor (p.66).”

Because the reactor fuel in the TMI reactor melted, we know that certain elements that were never mentioned by the nuclear industry and others responsible were released into the environment including highly toxic plutonium, strontium, and americium. Nuclear Power is Not the Answer uncovers destructive actions by the nuclear industry like the release of 172,000 cubic feet of high level radioactive water into the Susquehanna River without NRC permission a mere three days after the meltdown at TMI.

Dr. Caldicott recounts her own story of being present in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, a week after the disaster to explain the effects of radiation to thousands of frightened residents in the gymnasium of a high school. It was there that she was informed that local physicians had fled with their families, leaving hospitalized patients behind to fend for themselves. Hundreds of people reported a variety of symptoms associated with acute radiation sickness including nose bleeds, hair loss, skin rashes, nausea, and diarrhea - these same symptoms were experienced ten years later by residents of Pripet, the neighboring town to Chernobyl.

The book also includes a chilling anecdote of an FDA report condemning milk in that dairy-rich area of Pennsylvania. The FDA found cesium 137 in milk produced from as far as 150 miles north during and after the TMI meltdown. The Hershey Chocolate factory is located only 13 miles from Three Mile Island, and a memo dated April 11, just after the disaster, to W. J. Crook, of Hershey’s Science and Technology Dept. by C.J. Crowell, the Quality Assurance Manager of Hershey’s, states that “no detectable radiation has been found since a few days after the accident.” This statement is obviously inconsistent with the FDA’s findings. Hershey turned that milk into chocolate anyway.

Dr. Caldicott mentions the important research of Friend of Fairewinds Dr. Steve Wing, who conducted a thorough study relating accident dose estimates to the increased incidence of cancer.  Dr. Wing’s research also led to his work in the Three Mile Island Class Action Case.  Along with Fairewinds’ Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen, Dr. Steve Wing represented approximately 2,000 residents claiming that the radioactive release from the meltdown had been much larger than what was officially proclaimed by the nuclear industry and government officials. After several dismissals and appeals, it was clear that the industry’s image and liability were more important than the accuracy of data and protection of citizens.

It should be noted that there were two reactors at TMI, one is still in operation generating electricity today and was granted a license extension in 2009 that means it could be operating until 2034.

We’ve focused on the Three Mile Island meltdown, but Dr. Caldicott’s work covers Yucca Mountain, Chernobyl, nuclear weapons proliferation, the exorbitant financial cost of nuclear power and more. Dr. Helen Caldicott’s book, Nuclear Power is Not the Answer, reveals the truth and confirms what we all are learning – nuclear power has unreasonable risks for life, as we know it.

 Arnie Gundersen's Presentation at the Skiddaw Hotel in Keswick, England hosted by Radiation Free Lakeland


In our last newsletter, Fairewinds covered our Chief Engineer Arnie Gundersen's trip to the United Kingdom. Among his most recent presentations abroad, none caused quite a stir like the one in Keswick at the Skiddaw Hotel. Previously arranged to be held at the local Keswick School, the location was changed when Keswick School's Head Teacher, Simon Jackson revoked hospitality on the day of the event. Keswick School’s location is very near to Sellafield a nuclear reprocessing site and the event’s subject in question. On the grounds of disturbing school community, Head Teacher Jackson refused Radiation Free Lakeland to host their scheduled public discussion of Sellafield that included multiple scientist guest speakers including Arnie. Jackson admitted that there are many families employed by the nuclear processing site with children attending Keswick School. Radiation and Health expert and fellow speaker Dr. Ian Fairlie submitted a letter to Jackson with his concerns as to Jackson’s decision as an educator to “ban” a “friendly, informative meeting.” 

Controversy aside, the meeting was a great success, well attended, and community cohesive beyond measure! We've put this video presentation up on our site along with Arnie's presentation at the House of Commons, his Op-Ed, and U.K. Photo Journal - check them out! 



Book of the Month
Too Hot To Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste
by William M. Alley and Rosemarie Alley

Written by Dr. William and Rosemarie Alley, a husband and wife team, Too Hot To Touch: The Problem of High-Level Nuclear Waste confronts the controversies and critical issues surrounding nuclear waste management in the United States with references to the problem on an international scale. Dr. Alley is a leading expert in the field of hydrogeology, who served as Chief of the Office of Groundwater for the United States Geological Survey for almost two decades. Dr. Alley’s duties with USGS included the oversight of the Yucca Mountain federal nuclear waste project from 2002- 2010. Nuclear waste management in the United States remains a hot topic with no long-term solution in sight since the Yucca Mountain project was shut down for not being a geologically sound nuclear waste containment site. 

This easy to read book guides one through the history of nuclear waste disposal from the early days of atomic bombs, through the testing of low radioactive releases on the ocean floor, to the present not-in-my-backyard communities fighting to protect themselves from becoming nuclear garbage dumps. Too Hot To Touch will appeal to the geologist, nuclear scientist, and technologist wanting to learn from history as they face the difficult task of implementing a safe solution to this highly politically and socially charged technical problem of toxic leftovers. 

Also featuring...


Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy by Phillip L. Franklin

The lingering effects of radiation are severe and devastating for the victims exposed to the radioactive substances released during a nuclear meltdown like the one at Fukushima Daiichi. The consequences of exposure are well known by the nuclear industry and include various life threatening cancers and DNA mutations.  Fallout: An American Nuclear Tragedy is a harrowing story of nuclear testing in Nevada in the 1950s and 1960s, and the subsequent health effects of the unknowing innocents affected downwind in Nevada, Utah, and Arizona. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Phillip Franklin attended the 1982 trial from which these stories of cancer victims and their survivors were uncovered. This book is particularly relevant with the triple meltdown at Fukushima Daiichi where radioactive particles spread far and wide, creating an expansive fallout umbrella.  

unnamed-1.jpg Nuclear News:

Bloomberg reporter Jonathan Tirone described the Swiss-led European initiative Convention on Nuclear Safety (CNS) as “intended to make regulators show how they mitigate against radioactive contamination from nuclear accidents like the March 2011 Fukushima Dai-Ichi meltdowns.” In an international effort led by Switzerland, the 2015 Diplomatic Conference hosted 77 participating parties including the United States to amend the Convention on Nuclear Safety, a group committed to maintaining a high level of nuclear safety by setting international policy in which all members who operate land-based nuclear power plants must comply. The CNS has been called an “incentive instrument” because it has no acting enforcement authority.
  Tirone reports that the open opposition by both the United States and Russia to any international nuclear safety reform is mostly due to costly upgrades necessary in their old, dated reactors.  However, Tirone writes that “the U.S. has insisted its opposition to the European initiative has nothing to do with cost and that its nuclear-safety controls are adequate.”
  Mark Hibbs, Senior Associate Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, agrees with Tirone’s implications and has stated in an article about the CNS: “For many parties, the proposal’s implications for new reactors were, in principle, not problematic. But its potential impact on existing plants led countries operating older reactors—including the United States—to object. They argued that these plants would have to be shut down because equipping them with state-of-the-art features would be prohibitively expensive and in some cases not feasible.”
  U.S. experts acknowledge that if the CNS were to compel older units to undergo major surgery, many of the operating US nuclear power plants would have to be closed. 

Fukushima Daiichi owner Tokyo Electric Power Co. wasted $1.6 billion of taxpayer money for clean up of the meltdown site, according to an audit performed by the Japanese government. Repeated calls for more transparency of various expenses, and a list of untested measures that have failed are included in the report conducted by the Board of Auditors. Among the costliest failures cited in the report is a $270 million machine to remove radioactive cesium from water leaking from the three wrecked reactors. A complete disaster, the machine lasted three months and only treated 77,000 tons of water, “a tiny fraction of the volume leaking every day”. The failed $270 million water treatment machine was manufactured by the French nuclear conglomerate Areva. Early this spring, the French nuclear giant Areva announced €4.8 billion in losses. 

The Japanese Nuclear Regulation Authority accepted on Wednesday reports that a reactor at Japan Atomic Power Co.’s Tsuruga nuclear plant, located on the Sea of Japan coast, is sitting directly above an active geological fault. The expert report states that at least one of the faults running under the No. 2 reactor could move in the future. Despite this significant safety flaw, Japan Atomic Power is expected to push for a safety screening by and permission from Japanese regulators to restart the plant. 


  • published this page in Newsletters 2015-07-10 13:58:32 -0400


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