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40 years after Three Mile Island accident, debate over safety of nuclear energy still goes back and forth via Penn Live

By Ivey DeJesus |
Arnold “Arnie” Gundersen was a lead nuclear engineer in 1979 when the partial meltdown at Three Mile Island sent a tide of fear and panic across central Pennsylvania.

Gundersen, a former licensed reactor operator, needed no coaxing to convince a jittery public that it had nothing to fear with regards to the March 28, 1979 accident at the Londonderry Township plant.

“I was on television telling people not to worry,” said Gundersen, whose wife was pregnant at the time. “I was telling everybody, ‘Don’t worry. No radiation got released.’ I think I said, ‘The Titanic hit the iceberg and the iceberg sunk.’ I think that was my comment at the time and boy was I wrong.”

But it took him about a decade to change his mind.

His conversion from proponent to nuclear whistleblower occurred gradually in the 1990s as Gundersen, among other things, served on nuclear energy symposiums and as an expert witness for plaintiffs lawsuits against the nuclear industry.

“I was on the other side of the argument,” said Gundersen, who sits on the board of the Fairewinds Energy Education, a Charleston, S.C.-based anti-nuclear energy nonprofit that advocates for renewable energy. “I would call myself a nuclear zealot back then as opposed to a nuclear critic now.”


The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has long stood by its determination that the amount of radiation released in the 1979 Three Mile Island accident was well under acceptable levels and that no member of the public was put in danger as a result.

Now 70, Gundersen, stands by his conviction that the health of untold numbers of people across central Pennsylvania was endangered by the Three Mile Island partial meltdown. Over the years in his testimonies, Gundersen has attested to a litany of factors, he said, contributed to the misrepresention by the nuclear industry about the facts of the accident, including the number of radiation plumes released, the amount of radiation released and the amount of radioactive waste that was released inside the reactor.


Gundersen said that because of the inaccurate assessments released to the public, subsequent medical studies on the impact of Three Mile Island radiation exposure were compromised.


Gundersen argues that uranium mining exposes workers to radiation, and contaminates groundwater and aquifers.

Citing statistics from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the NEI notes that between 1990 to 1995, states that increased nuclear electricity generation by just 16 percent reduced their emissions by 37 percent. Nuclear power, the NEI says, helps states comply with the Clean Air Act.

Gundersen discredits the assessments released on Fukushima. He claims the nuclear industry used “identical tactics” to deal with that disaster as it did with the Three Mile Island accident, Chernobyl and even the Deepwater Horizon disaster. That includes downplaying the risks and telling the public it is in no immediate danger.

“The industry controls the narrative,” Gundersen said. “The orthodoxy very quickly circles the wagons and protects trillions of dollars of investment.”


Eric Epstein, chairman of Three Mile Island Alert, an anti-nuclear advocacy group, stands behind Gundersen’s assessment of the lack of transparency in the nuclear industry. Epstein says the industry will never own up to the dangers of nuclear energy nor the dangers inflicted on central Pennsylvania as a result of the Three Mile Island accident.

He says he remains resolutely cynical about nuclear: “We can all agree that there are no safe levels of radiation exposure. … But the industry can’t afford to acknowledge the truth. It would bankrupt the nuclear industry.”

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