In late September, the Three Mile Island unit 1 closed permanently after 45 years, joining the better-known unit 2, only several months old at the infamous 1979 core meltdown.
The recent shutdown continues the trend of closing old, corroding and leaking U.S. reactors — 10, to be exact, since early 2013. More will shutter in the future; the only new construction in progress is a Georgia plant, just half complete after 14 years with costs billions over the original projection.
Some believe new nuclear plants are finished in this country, including nuclear power officials. Last year, William van Hoene, senior vice president of Exelon — which owns more U.S. reactors than any company — stated, “I don’t think we’re building any more nuclear plants in the United States.”
The recent fuss over shutting Three Mile Island 1 was all economic; Exelon closed the plant because it was losing money. But the dwindling U.S. nuclear power program should be about health, not money. Three Mile Island provides a good example.
The 1979 meltdown released a large amount of radioactivity, although exact calculations are elusive. Almost all medical journals ignored the health issue, concluded no harm was committed or blamed stress. Nearly 12 years after the meltdown, no article with specific disease or death rates had been published — compared with 31 articles on health effects of Three Mile Island-induced stress.
The first article with hard data stated that in the first five years after the meltdown, the cancer rate rose 64% among residents within 10 miles of the plant — from 1,722 to 2,831 cases. That alone should have raised red flags about exposure to toxic radioactivity.
Thereafter, a bitter fight broke out among researchers; those from Columbia University and the University of Pittsburgh claimed “no harm” from the meltdown, while those from the University of North Carolina concluded the 64% jump was indeed a result of toxic exposures. A 2017 article from Penn State University concluded genetic mutations among those near the plant who developed thyroid cancer were linked with radiation exposure. More answers are needed.
Other, unpublished data point to harm caused by Three Mile Island. The death rate of infants under 1 month in Dauphin County (site of the plant) and Lebanon County (immediately downwind/ east) jumped 50% in the first two years after the meltdown, compared with a 10% decline for other counties in Pennsylvania.
Three Mile Island unit 1 poses a different type of hazard. It never melted down but continued to emit relatively low doses of radioactivity into local air, water, and food – and thus human bodies — until shutdown late in September.
A glance at official vital statistics in Dauphin and Lebanon Counties raises concerns over whether exposures to the fetus, infant and young child — who are most susceptible to the harm caused by radiation — in fact did cause more deaths. From 1968-1978 (before the plant opened) to the 39 years (1979-2017) after meltdown and ongoing releases, changes occurred in the two-county death rate vs. other Pennsylvania counties:
- The rate of deaths in infants less than 28 days old rose from -7% to +1% (136 excess deaths).
- The rate of deaths of all causes in children ages 1 to 9 years old rose from -1% to +12% (35 excess deaths), excluding homicide and accidents.
- The rate of cancer deaths from ages zero to 24 years old rose from -2% to +24% (52 excess deaths).
These unexpected rises could be due to various factors. However, these increases in those who are youngest and most susceptible to radiation exposure’s toxic effects should be taken seriously.
Previous studies show that when reactors close, there is an immediate reduction in local infant deaths and cancer cases in young children; over time there are reductions in cancer rates of all ages. The recent shutdown should improve public health in the area around Three Mile Island and should serve as a reminder that future energy policies rely on truly “clean” sources, and not harmful ones like nuclear power.
Joseph Mangano is an epidemiologist and executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.