Cancer legacy of nuclear accident

May 7, 1997

By Peter Montague

A study published in January in Environmental Health Perspectives (a US government journal) concludes that people who lived near the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 are more likely to get lung cancer, leukaemia and all cancers combined, compared to people living further from the plant. The nuclear reactor released radioactivity into the surrounding air in March 1979 during a loss-of-coolant accident that crippled the plant.

A 1990 study had concluded that certain cancers were occurring among nearby residents at unusually high rates, but that radiation released during the accident was probably not the cause. The latest study, by Stephen Wing and others, says those rising cancer rates were caused by radiation.

The nuclear power corporations are working overtime to discredit Wing and the other authors of the new study. The industry's attacks on Wing are deflecting attention away from the real issue: both the 1990 study and the 1997 study agree that cancers are occurring at unusually high rates among people who lived near the Three Mile Island reactor in 1979.

Whether radiation released during the accident caused these cancers, or whether the plant caused them in some other way is an interesting sidelight, but is not the central issue.

After the authors of the 1990 study concluded that radiation released during the 1979 accident probably wasn't causing the cancer increases, they did a second study. They found that the cancers might have been caused by accident-related stress.

Stress is known to damage the immune system, and a damaged immune system may fail to prevent cancers. If your immune system is damaged, even routine low-level releases of radioactive gases from a nearby nuclear power plant might be sufficient to cause cancers.

There was plenty of reason to feel stress back in 1979 if you lived within 160 kilometres of Three Mile Island. Shortly after the initial accident, government and industry officials got caught telling the public a series of bald-faced lies, compounding the public's initial distress.

Meanwhile, hydrogen gas was building up inside the containment vessel, and reputable scientists were taking bets on whether it would explode and breach the containment, releasing more radioactivity. A hot, heavy mass of melted fuel was beginning to burn its way through the bottom of the reactor, threatening to contact the soil below and perhaps set off a steam explosion.

Either of these scenarios could have released large quantities of radiation into the surrounding countryside.

Sensibly, the governor of Pennsylvania evacuated women and children within a eight-kilometre radius of the plant. Many local people never fully recovered from the experience and never regained trust in officialdom as the damaged reactor's twin was put into service. Some local people were studied years later, and they registered high stress levels at least five years after the accident.

So take your choice. Cancers are increased among people who were living near the reactor when the accident occurred. That much is not in dispute. Maybe radiation released during the accident caused the cancers. Or maybe the very real threats of a hydrogen explosion and a full-scale meltdown worried people sick.
[From Rachel's Environment & Health Weekly. Like Green Left Weekly, Rachel's is a non-profit publication which distributes information without charge on the internet and depends on the generosity of readers to survive. If you are able to help keep this valuable resource in existence, send your contribution to Environmental Research Foundation, PO Box 5036, Annapolis, Maryland 21403-7036, USA. In the United States, donations to ERF are tax deductible.]

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