The consequences of the TMI disaster were made more serious because, early on, emergency planning officials were repeatedly misinformed about the disaster’s progression and kept in the dark about the need for public protective actions.
Ironically, despite today’s popular “too much information” shorthand, TMI is a story of “too little information.” What the public believes about TMI is far removed from what really happened.
The often repeated nuclear industry line — that “no one died at Three Mile Island” — does not stand the test of fundamental medical scrutiny. Yet, 35 years later, we are hearing it again, put about by nuclear deniers who also claim that the Chernobyl nuclear explosion harmed a mere handful and that the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan will yield no fatalities.
Given what we know about exposure to radiation, it is medically far more probable that there were multiple fatalities as a result of TMI, as well as non-fatal cancers and other illnesses. The numbers will be orders of magnitude higher as a result of the even more serious Chernobyl and Fukushima nuclear catastrophes. There are other prematurely fatal outcomes too, triggered by stress, dislocation and abandonment. None of these should be callously discounted.
The two TMI studies — by Columbia and Pittsburgh Universities — that have perpetuated the “no harm” myth, were conducted under the constraints of a court order that significantly compromised the study findings.
The only independent study, by Dr. Stephen Wing et al., found that lung cancer and leukemia rates were two to 10 times higher downwind of the destroyed Three Mile Island reactor than upwind.
However, the most notable parallel between the three disasters is the control of information. By suppressing weather data, evacuations were delayed or directed into the radioactive plume path. There were deliberate under-estimations of the radiation releases and the true severity of the disaster was hushed up. This was done in order to protect the nuclear industry’s reputation and to allay “panic.”
This meant that public health was compromised to protect the industry’s public image. For example, potassium iodide — which can protect the thyroid — was unavailable to exposed populations around TMI, Chernobyl and Fukushima, leading to elevated rates of thyroid problems, including cancer.
Such consequences are avoidable, first and foremost by closing operating reactors and halting construction of new ones.