On January 19, 1979, with what could be seen as its only prescient act during its existence, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission rejected its own safety study, done in 1975, which concluded a serious nuclear accident had the probability of occurring only once in a million years.
Just 68 days later, on March 28, the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor near Middletown, Pennsylvania, became the nation’s first major nuclear disaster.
Media from throughout the world descended on the site and TMI became one of the year’s biggest headline stories.
Two reporters, who went to TMI to cover the reporters who were covering the accident, said that as the crisis subsided, the other journalists finally began to focus on the most important story:
“Do the experts know enough to protect us from nuclear catastrophe? That story has been around, largely uncovered, for a decade. Now it is news.” (1)
But is it news, even now, more than a year after TMI? There appears much that still is not being told the American public. Following are some nuclear power stories of 1979 that deserved far more coverage than they received.
THE TRUTH ABOUT THREE MILE ISLAND — Despite President Carter’s personal visit to TMI on April 1 and his statement that radioactivity in the area was “quite safe,” not everyone agrees.
Ernest Sternglass, professor of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, has revealed that the accident at TMI may have exposed about a million people to up to 130 times more radiation than the government has reported so far. The effects of this exposure on the health of those people also will be significantly more serious and longer-lasting than the NRC has so far acknowledged.
In its attempt to assure the public that radiation exposure from the accident was minimal, the NRC reported only the external gamma radiation doses received from passing clouds of radioactive gases.
The total dose received by vital organs and bones from inhalation of fission gases has not been calculated by the commission, even though it is through inhalation that the greatest biological damage occurs. Calculations based on data from earlier nuclear accidents and from nuclear bomb tests show that when gases are inhaled they produce a radiation dose approximately 130 times greater than the dose absorbed externally.
Is it any wonder that a year after the accident the local residents are still fearful, dubious that a cleanup can be conducted safely, and refuse to believe that the NRC tells them? (2)
AN ACADEMIC COVER-UP — The Nuclear Regulatory Commission paid the prestigious National Academy of Sciences $ 93,237 for a major report on radioactive wastes that was censored before it could be published.
The draft copy of the report charged that the Department of Energy’s broad research program on disposing of radioactive wastes was inadequate and that its tentative commitment to one disposal method, transforming the high-level wastes from spent reactor fuel rods into a kind of glass, was premature.
The critical report had already been completely approved through the Academy’s elaborate reviewing process and was at the printer when the decision was made to halt publication.
Complaints had been received from the Energy Department and one of its contractors, Battelle Laboratories, which had a strong financial interest in the subject. After a three-month review, the Academy decided not to publish the report. (3)
MISSING PLUTONIUM — It takes about 17.6 pounds of plutonium to make a nuclear bomb. According to the General Accounting Office, the investigative branch of Congress, security at the government’s nuclear fuel reprocessing plants is inadequate and monitoring systems are not accurate enough to detect the loss of bomb-sized amounts of plutonium in time to do anything about it.
The GAO report notes the following amounts of plutonium “unaccounted for” at the government’s Savannah River reprocessing plant in South Carolina (one of three in the nation) — 114 pounds in 1964; 18 pounds in 1969; 38 pounds in 1970; and about 10 pounds in 1978. (4)
TRUE COSTS OF NUCLEAR POWER UNDERSTATED — The true costs of nuclear power have been ignored to make it appear economical to the American public. “Nuclear power has been artificially priced into the realm of feasibility,” according to Dr. William Belmont, a member of the Associated Regulatory Consultants of Rockville, Maryland. “If we had looked at the economic feasibility, as well as the technological feasibility, we may well have made a different decision historically,” he noted.
Some of the cost factors that have been understated or ignored include: adequate insurance for the plant and replacement power needs; realistic liability insurance against a catastrophic nuclear accident; the true cost of decommissioning a nuclear plant; and the true cost of spent fuel disposal. (5)
NIGHT MARE ISLAND — The Mare Island Naval Shipyard on the northern tip of the San Francisco Bay is a refueling facility for the U.S. Navy’s nuclear-powered submarines. Mare Island is surrounded by several earthquake faults as well as a major metropolitan area.
While the NRC now warns about nuclear reactors sited near population centers, Mare Island has been selected for decommissioning of nuclear submarines. The USS Nautilus, the Navy’s first nuclear-powered sub, will be dismantled at Mare Island. (6)
UNANSWERED QUESTIONS ABOUT KAREN SILKWOOD — Last Nay, as a result of a lawsuit tried on behalf of the Karen Silkwood estate, the Oklahoma City federal court assessed the Kerr-McGee Corporation $ 10 million for negligent operation of a plutonium-processing plant and $ 5000,000 for the plutonium contamination of Silkwood, a former lab technician at the plant.
This decision established Silkwood as the first official victim of radiation poisoning and also set a precedent for holding the nuclear industry liable for harm done by off-site, low-level radiation.
What was not widely publicized were serious questions about Silkwood’s fatal auto accident while delivering documentation of Kerr-McGee’s safety violations to a New York Times reporter. Silkwood surveillance by Kerr-McGee, and others, prior to her death also was not widely reported.
Although dents in the rear of Silkwood’s car indicated a wheeled assailant, the Oklahoma police ruled her death accidental. The documents she was carrying were reportedly seen in her car, but mysteriously disappeared after Kerr-McGee officials visited the wrecked auto. In addition to Silkwood’s death, two key witnesses died before being questioned. Two others fled the country. (7)
ANOTHER NUCLEAR “VICTIM” — In 1972, Ron Clary, then a structural Engineer for Bechtel Corporation, discovered a mathematical error in an equation applied to the construction of the fuel-spent storage building of the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant near Sacramento, California, the controversial “twin” of TMI. The error could mean that Bechtel had built the building substantially less strong than it should be. Clary alleges records were falsified to expedite licensing by the NRC.
In 1975, Clary went to work for the NRC in its Bethesda headquarters and, with a growing concern over nuclear safety, subsequently called for an investigation into the errors he had uncovered at Rancho Seco. On June 19, 1978, the NRC completely reversed an earlier finding and conceded that the mistakes Clary alleged had happened at Rancho Seco had, indeed, been made.
On July 13, 1979, Clary was fired by the NRC.(8)
WHERE DOES THE PRESIDENT STAND? — The American public might have a better understanding of where President Carter stands on the critical nuclear power issue if the media were to pressure him into divulging what transpired at a secret meeting held on the morning of June 14, 1978, in the Cabinet Room of the White House.
Attending the meeting were Carter, Congressmen George Brown and Walter Flowers, Energy Secretary James Schlesinger, and 13 men whose names did not appear on the President’s press schedule list that morning.
The 13 men have been identified as representing all the elements which make up the nuclear energy industry in the United States. They serve as corporate executives of U.S. utilities, nuclear reactor manufacturers, and the big construction firms, whose combined assets exceed $ 40 billion.
According to author-researcher Mark Hertsgaard, what unfolded during the 90-minute session was a high-level clandestine meeting which helped shape the future of nuclear power in the U.S. “It was a meeting in which Jimmy Carter — at odds with liberals in his party, unable to control a Democratic Congress, and grasping for business support in the 1980 elections -would offer concessions to the nuclear industry that would completely violate his anti-nuclear rhetoric.” (9)
The continuing failure of the mass media to fully explore and report all aspects of an issue that could bring us a nuclear catastrophe qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1979.
(1) Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1979, “At Three Mile Island,” by Peter M. Sandman and Mary Paden; (2) The Progressive, June 1979, “The Whole Truth About Three Mile Island,” by Ernest Sternglass; (3) The New York Times, June 25, 1979, “How National Academy of Science Decided to Halt a Nuclear Waste Report Is Disputed,” by David Burnham; (4) AP, San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 20, 1980, “Lax Nuclear Plant Security Draws Heat in GAO Report;” (5) AP, San Francisco Chronicle, Mar. 26, 1980, “True Nuclear Costs Allegedly Understated;” (6) It’s About Times, Nov. 1979, “(Night) Mare Island,” by Mark Evanoff; (7) Rolling Stone, Mar. 8, May 17, June 28, and July 26, 1979, “The Karen Silkwood Case;” (8) New West, Nov. 19, 1979, “How Safe is Rancho Seco?”; (9) Mother Jones, June, 1979, “How Carter Plugs In To the Nuclear Industry,” by Mark Hertsgaard.