20 years later, still a mystery

Radiation: Twenty years after the Three Mile Island disaster, effects on residents are still unclear

April 04, 1999|By Faye Flam | Faye Flam,knight-ridder/tribune

PENNSYLVANIA — Ever since the March 28, 1979, accident at Three Mile Island, Pa., people who lived near the nuclear power plant have been left wondering whether enough radiation was spewed into the air to trigger any cases of cancer -- cancers that might not appear until years later.

Twenty years ought to be enough time to know. But linking cancer to any subtle environmental effect is no easy business, so scientists are still wrangling over what they've observed.

Most who have studied the accident have concluded that even those living closest to the plant couldn't have been harmed by the tiny amounts of radiation released during those fearful few days.

Any cancers or other ailments that have emerged, they say, would have happened anyway. But a few scientists question that thinking, suggesting that radioactive releases were much higher than anyone realized.

The final answer was left to the epidemiologists, who have combed hospital records and interviewed thousands of people to seek connections between cancer and exposure to plumes of radioactive gases.

A study published in 1990 reassured people that little, if any, harm was done.

A re-analysis published two years ago suggested a connection to leukemia and lung cancer.

The largest study, which tracked 35,000 people living within five miles of the plant for 18 years, is due out this year.

Evelyn Talbot and colleagues from the University of Pittsburgh won't reveal details of their findings, which include lifestyle information, such as smoking, gleaned from interviews. But she said that the overall cancer rate was no higher than would have been expected if the area had no nuclear power plant, and that for individual cancers, her paper would not drop any bombshells.

"If that doesn't finally close the case, maybe it will never be closed," said Jonathan Berger, a Philadelphia environmental scientist who manages a fund for research into the accident.

The studies all run up against the same problem, he said.

There weren't sufficient measuring devices around the site to accurately assess the releases.

That oversight may seem surprising, but according to Harold Denton, a nuclear engineer appointed by President Jimmy Carter to give advice during the accident, the idea of a meltdown looked about as likely as the sinking of the Titanic.

That leaves local residents wondering whether cancer deaths of friends and relatives were caused by the accident, and whether they themselves carry invisible, radiation-induced cancer time bombs.

Paula Kinney, 51, used to live so close to the plant that she could see the imposing concrete cooling towers from her kitchen window.

"It was sheer terror when the news first got out. It was like, we were all going to die," she said.

Now she wonders whether the radioactive releases have anything to do with the ovarian cysts her older daughter suffered at age 13, a problem she said affected many teen-age girls in the neighborhood.

She wonders about the menstrual irregularity and other odd symptoms that still plague her younger one, who was 4 at the time.

She wonders whether the radiation caused the death of an infant born to a friend, and whether she and her family are saddled with a high risk of cancer.

Sharon Arndt, 40, who lived in Middletown, Pa., with her family at the time, connects the accident to her mother's death from colon cancer at 65.

They made it sound like everything was fine, she said of officials who made news announcements during the accident.

Arndt, now a legal secretary in Harrisburg, Pa., said she wishes she had evacuated -- something many people did.

Experts disagree over both the quantity of radiation released and which of several releases were most serious.

Some radiation escaped soon after a stuck valve started the whole thing at 4 in the morning on March 28.

Then, radioactive gases evaporated from contaminated water that had spilled over the floor of the reactor and an auxiliary building.

During the first day of the accident, people on the farms and in the towns of Middletown and Royalton, Pa., reported classic symptoms of radiation sickness -- nausea, vomiting and hair loss.

Those symptoms might also be attributed to the stress of thinking they were about to witness a nuclear apocalypse.

But it's extremely unlikely that hazardous amounts of radiation were released during the first day or two, said David Lochbaum, a nuclear engineer and former consultant at the Susquehanna, Pa., plant who now works for the anti-nuclear group Union of Concerned Scientists.

The worst releases began on the fourth day, he said, after the 100-ton uranium core had begun to melt.

(The reactor shut off within minutes of the accident, but there was no way to shut off the heat-generating radioactivity produced by nuclear fission in the core.) That day, plant operators tried to bleed off a bubble of hydrogen gas that had collected in the reactor.

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