April 30, 2008
Long but very worth-reading article on Three Mile Island and nuclear power in GQ. The heart of the piece:
At Three Mile Island, according to a 1980 inquiry by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the maximum level of radiation that anybody within a fifty-mile radius could have received from the accident was about 100 millirems—the equivalent of moving to Colorado for a year, or into a brick house for two. According to another study, by the Pennsylvania Departments of Health and Environmental Resources, among 721 locals tested, not a single one showed radiation exposure above normal. A similar study by the state’s Department of Agriculture found no significant trace of radiation in the local fish, water, or dairy products, which tend to register minute impurities. And a study released in 2000 by the Graduate School of Public Health at the University of Pittsburgh found that, twenty-one years after the accident, there was still no evidence of “any measurable impact” on public health.
Given the extreme scale of the meltdown at TMI—including an explosion of hydrogen, the liquefaction of radioactive uranium, and the release of a plume of radioactive gas into the air outside—it is reasonable to conclude that the lesson of Three Mile Island is not merely a matter of what went wrong at the plant but also an example of what went right. For so many people and so many systems to fail so spectacularly all at once, without any measurable effect on public health, may be the last, best proof that a system is working. . . .
When a meltdown like Three Mile Island scares us blind, creating an apocalyptic mythology about what happened there, we pay for our superstitions with sulfur fumes, global warming, and acid rain—our suicide pact with coal.
And when we fail to consider each of these issues with reason instead of fear, when we fail to make the tough comparison between nuclear power, with its potential for disaster, and coal plants, with their guarantee of it, this isn’t a reflection that we have no choices but that we refuse to make them.
It may be, more than anything else, an example of democracy working and failing at the same time.