‘Nobody at Three Mile Island was actually hurt or killed, or anything of that nature,” remembers John McGaha, formerly a senior executive of Entergy, a Mississippi company that runs and operates nuclear utilities. “Versus if you look at some of the oil and chemical explosions we’ve had over the years . . . ”
McGaha and other experts tell NRO that Americans are unduly afraid of nuclear energy — in part because of the media’s disproportionate, distorted reporting on rare nuclear accidents like Three Mile Island and the recent problems in Japan. McGaha says the most deadly consequence of Three Mile Island might have been how it delayed the advancement of nuclear technology in the U.S.
Yes, officially, one or two incidents of cancer have been attributed to Three Mile Island. But even with those, there’s no way to know for sure. All of us have “a 16 percent lifetime chance of contracting cancer,” says Robert Henkin, professor emeritus of radiology at Loyola University in Chicago. So, he asks, “If that goes to 16.1 percent, how do you ever pick that out?” We can’t be certain there was any harm at all.
And yet the panic at the time outdid the current panic over the Fukushima reactors. “Governor Thornburg was debating whether he would evacuate 20 miles out,” Prof. Michael Corradini, chairman of engineering physics at the University of Wisconsin, remembers. And the newspaper headlines during the Three Mile Island crisis suggested much worse. “Strangely enough,” Professor Henkin says, Three Mile Island “was actually one of the great successes of the industry.”
It’s not remembered that way, of course. One reason seems to be that the terminology related to nuclear power has taken on sinister connotations. Consider radiation. Think of the panic that the headline “Radiation levels increase by 100 percent” could induce. But in reality, such radiation would be medically beneficial; it would promote “radiation hormesis” — the exercise of the immune system. “We get one unit of radiation per day. When we double that — they’ve done tests with animals — they show better health. It’s like doing pushups,” says Gilbert Brown, a professor of nuclear engineering at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell. That doesn’t prove we shouldn’t worry about much higher levels of radiation — but it indicates how our emotional response does not correspond to reality.
And how high are radiation levels in Japan right now? The International Atomic Energy Agency on Sunday said that radiation levels of 5.7 microsivierts per hour were detected at a 35-mile radius from Fukushima. This, Steve Kerekes of the Nuclear Energy Institue says, is “under what a nuclear-plant worker could be exposed to every day for his job” under the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s guidelines. And even that measure may overrate the risk. “They intentionally set the limits very, very low — at much smaller levels than are actually dangerous, to encourage people to be very safe with radiation,” Professor Henkin says. Comparing Japan’s current levels with the data derived from the decades-long Atomic Bomb Project, which followed people exposed at various distances to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki explosions, Henkin concludes the following: “The dosage that people had to attain to achieve above-average incidence of cancer in a population is orders of magnitude above anything basically anybody [outside of the plants] in Japan is experiencing right now.”
Here’s another example: meltdown. The nuclear experts like to call it “the M-word.” “We use the term ‘meltdown,’ and it conjures up this disaster,” Brown says. But a meltdown is not always a catastrophe. “When you say ‘car accident,’ people know it could be a fender-bender, or it could be fatal. Nobody just assumes it was fatal. It should be the same with a meltdown. There are many scenarios in which a meltdown happens and nobody gets hurt,” Brown says.