New film spotlights women’s experiences with the Three Mile Island nuclear accident
By Karl Grossman
Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island is the title of a newly-released documentary feature film directed, written and produced by award-winning filmmaker Heidi Hutner, a professor of environmental humanities at Stony Brook University, a “flagship” school of the State University of New York.
With greatly compelling facts and interviews, she and her also highly talented production team have put together a masterpiece of a documentary film.
Resident after resident of the area around Three Mile Island is interviewed and tells of widespread cancer that has ensued in the years that have followed the accident—a cancer rate far beyond what would be normal. Accounts shared in the documentary are heartbreaking.
A whistleblower who had worked at the nuclear plant tells Hutner of the deliberate and comprehensive attempt by General Public Utilities, which owned TMI, to cover up the gravity of the accident and its radioactive releases, especially of cancer-causing Iodine-131 and Xenon 133.
An attorney, Lynne Bernabei, involved in litigation in the wake of the accident, says the Three Mile Island “cover-up was one of the biggest cover-ups in history.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission which is “supposed to protect the public” has then and since been just “interested in is promoting the [nuclear] industry. This is corrupt,” says attorney Joanne Doroshow, now a professor at New York Law School and director of the Center for Justice & Democracy. Many examples of this are presented.
The documentary’s focus on women includes women being far more at risk to the effects of radioactivity than men. Mary Olson, a biologist, founder, and director of the Gender & Radiation Impact Project, says in the film that those setting radiation standards in the U.S. from the onset of nuclear technology in 1942, based impacts on a “25 to 30 years-old” male “defined as Caucasian.” She said, “It has come to be known as the ‘Reference Man.” However, Olson cites research findings that “radiation is 10 times more harmful to young females” and “50 percent more harmful to a “comparable female” than it is to “Reference Man” who is “more resistant” to radioactivity than a woman.
There’s the scientist Dr. Aaron Datesman, who is now pursuing a major chromosomal study regarding the impact of the disaster on the health of people in the area and how people have been harmed despite the denials of the nuclear industry. This study is based on his recent ground-breaking work, “Radiological Shot Noise,” in Nature.
And more and more.
After the screening of the documentary at the Cinema Arts Centre in Huntington, Long Island, the showing I attended, there was a panel discussion involving Hutner, four women featured in the documentary, and its editor Simeon Hutner, who is also a producer.
The discussion was moderated by Kelly McMasters, author of the memoir, Welcome to Shirley, A Memoir of an Atomic Town, and a professor at Hofstra University on Long Island. McMasters in her book attributes wide-ranging cancer in her Shirley hometown on Long Island to radioactive releases from the three nuclear reactors that operated at the adjacent Brookhaven National Laboratory, reactors that are now shut down.
From the audience, Catherine Skopic of Manhattan, who journeyed to Long Island for the premiere of the documentary in Huntington, said the film “is going to make waves.” She related the link between the TMI accident and contemporary nuclear issues. These included the plan by Holtec International, now the owner of the closed Indian Point nuclear power plants 25 miles north of the city, to “dump a million gallons of radioactive water” into the Hudson River from which “seven communities get their drinking water,” and similar dumping planned in coming months by the Tokyo Electric Power Company from its 2011 accident-struck Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plants into the Pacific Ocean.
Hutner, in speaking about the focus on women in Radioactivity: The Women of Three Mile Island, explains: “Following health and safety disasters, it is often women on the ground fighting back, and over and over throughout nuclear history, these women are gaslighted, silenced, called hysterical and ‘radiophobic.’ The result of such silencing: we lose significant information about nuclear history, science, and health.”
Hutner goes on: “What I have dug up after over 20 years of ecofeminist research is shocking—Dr. Alice Stewart’s research on the danger of X-rays to fetuses in the womb; Rachel Carson’s writing about radiation and bioaccumulation; Dr. Helen Caldicott’s warnings about the dangers of nuclear weapons and her peace and vital medical health advocacy as a physician (she has been attacked mercilessly and unfairly by male critics on sexist grounds); Mary Olson’s study of the alarming danger of radiation to girls and women; Leona Morgan’s decolonization activism to protect Indigenous communities from uranium extraction and poisoning, and the dumping radioactive waste on native lands; poet activist Kathy Jetnil-Kijiner’s story-telling about the suffering of women miscarrying in the Marshall Islands after the 67 nuclear test-bombing by the U.S. There are endless stories such as these.
“By erasing such women’s voices, by gaslighting these women, men have erased significant human stories, science, research,” says Hutner. “This is a classic sexist maneuver. They call women and those who speak up about the dangers of nuclear technology radiophobic, hysterical, and incapable of understanding science. As the women in Radioactive explain, when they spoke at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearings and meetings, asking intelligent questions about the verity of the nuclear company’s and NRC’s claims, and armed with detailed information regarding their corruption and cover-ups—what really happened—the women were laughed at, mocked, told to ‘go home and bake cookies.’
“That’s why we made Radioactive. The public needs to know and understand how they are being lied to, how key aspects of nuclear disasters and radiation impacts have been swept under the rug. And at what cost. This is life and death. And so we focus on buried women’s stories, and in subsequent film projects we hope to make as part of a series, we will bring in the silenced voices of black, brown, and women’s Indigenous groups impacted unequally by nuclear disasters.”
She adds: “The film could not come at a more important time for a number of reasons. With nuclear power being discussed in some circles as an ‘answer’ to our climate crisis, we believe anyone seeing this film will walk away with the unmistakable conclusion that nuclear power must be off the table.
“TMI is one of a long list of environmental disasters and cover-ups that have caused serious harm to surrounding communities, which will last decades,” Hutner continued. “It was and continues to be the lesson of what happens when a corporation and industry lacking integrity, regulated by an agency completely captured by that industry, is put in charge of people’s lives.
“TMI happened 44 years ago. But when it comes to systems meant to protect the public’s health and safety from nuclear hazards, nothing has changed and in fact, has only gotten worse,” Hutner concluded.
Karl Grossman is a professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet, as well as the Beyond Nuclear handbook, The U.S. Space Force and the dangers of nuclear power and nuclear war in space. He is a board member of Beyond Nuclear.
Headline photo courtesy of Radioactive, The Film.
The opinions expressed in articles by outside contributors and published on the Beyond Nuclear International website, are their own, and do not necessarily reflect the views or positions of Beyond Nuclear. However, we try to offer a broad variety of viewpoints and perspectives as part of our mission “to educate and activate the public about the connections between nuclear power and nuclear weapons and the need to abandon both to safeguard our future”..