Sunday, November 22, 2009

Leak at Three Mile Island, But It's Only 1979 in Our Minds

There was a tiny radiation leak at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Middletown, Pennsylvania yesterday afternoon.  The worker with the highest radiation exposure from the incident got the equivalent of about two and a quarter chest x-rays' worth.  Nobody else got any.  Workers were sent home until the building where the leak occurred could be cleaned.  No radiation escaped the building.

By any rational standard, this is not a very exciting news story.  I tried to dig up some statistics on minor nuclear accidents and was unsuccessful (mostly because people only write about major accidents).  However, I was able to discover that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has as many as 6 reports of incidents involving misuse, mishandling or release of radioactive materials on its website every day.  This undoubtedly was on the more serious end of those, but it's not at all unheard of.  And yet, it's all over the news.

The only reason this story is a story at all is because it happened at Three Mile Island.  The name "Three Mile Island" has come to be synonymous with "major nuclear disaster."  In 1979, Unit 2 at Three Mile Island experienced a partial meltdown.  It is still the biggest civil nuclear disaster ever in the United States, and the second biggest one in the world (behind the Chernobyl disaster).  If you  lived in Pennsylvania in 1979, you certainly remember that incident.  I was nine years old at the time, living in Massachusetts, and I have a vivid memory of my parents buying powdered milk in case the dairy cows on the East coast all suffered radiation contamination.

Three Mile Island is so synonymous with nuclear disaster and so ubiquitous in the American consciousness that the coverage of yesterday's leak uniformly adheres to the following pattern:  The leak yesterday is explained.  the issue of whether there was or is danger to the public is explored.  The accident in 1979 is mentioned with absolutely no segue or connection.

Don't get me wrong, I understand that people are drawing a connection, and so it behooves the press to make that connection, too.  What I find astounding is that there is literally no effort to contrast the seriousness of the 1979 incident with the situation this weekend.  All that would be necessary would be a connecting sentence like,
This incident reminded many local residents of the much more serious accident in 1979,
Official desciptions of this event made it clear it was not nearly as serious as the famous 1979 incident at the same facility.

It may make sense for us to have the memories of those scary days 30 years ago triggered by the news today.  It may even make sense for the media to talk about that connection.  Part of dealing with people's stress reactions, however, is to put their fears in some context.  The media is utterly failing to do that.

Oh, and by the way, how many people do you think died during the incident in 1979?  And how many lives do you believe were shortened by the radiation exposure?  The answer may surprise you -- it certainly surprised me.  No one died at Three Mile Island (then or now), and official estimates are that perhaps one single solitary person may live a shorter life because of the accident.  Perspective is an interesting thing.


Colleen said...

I remember watching the TMI stuff... If the cows were contaminated, so would everything else, including _us_. My family figured that out at the time!

I thought that everyone had heard that that there were no injuries at TMI! I think it was part of the news when Chernobyl happened, was one of those "When WE had a problem, no one was hurt, but THEY have hurt everyone" type of reports.

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