Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Noisome Falsehoods About Three Mile Island

As I expected, the upcoming anniversary of the Three Mile Island Accident has inspired Harvey Wasserman to trot out one of his more dubious perennial deceptions:
People died---and are still dying---at Three Mile Island.

As the thirtieth anniversary of America's most infamous industrial accident approaches, we mourn the deaths that accompanied the biggest string of lies ever told in US industrial history.
Mr. Wasserman does not apparently live with us in the reality-based community, where it is widely understood that radiation release at TMI was minimal, and that the public health impact from radiation was nonexistent. Repeated epidemiological studies have confirmed this (see Hatch et Al., Am. J. Pub. Health 81:719-24 (1991), Talbott et Al., Environmental Health Perspectives 108:545-62 (2000), and so on).

Sadly, Wasserman has some allies in perpetuating his falsehoods:
A study by Columbia University claimed there were no significant health impacts, but its data by some interpretations points in the opposite direction. Investigations by epidemiologist Dr. Stephen Wing of the University of North Carolina, and others, led Wing to warn that the official studies on the health impacts of the accident suffered from “logical and methodological problems.” Studies by Wing and by Arnie Gundersen, a former nuclear industry official, being announced this week at Harrisburg, significantly challenge official pronouncements on both radiation releases and health impacts.

Gundersen, a leading technical expert on nuclear engineering, says: “When I correctly interpreted the containment pressure spike and the doses measured in the environment after the TMI accident, I proved that TMI's releases were about one hundred times higher than the industry and the NRC claim, in part because the containment leaked. This new data supports the epidemiology of Dr. Steve Wing and proves that there really were injuries from the accident. New reactor designs are also effected, as the NRC is using its low assumed release rates to justify decreases in emergency planning and containment design."
The notion that TMI radiation releases were two orders of magnitude higher than official estimates is preposterous. How do we know this?

As a public service, in 1979 the Eastman Kodak Company collected all the unexposed film that it could locate in the area around Three Mile Island and examined it for evidence of radiation-induced fogging. This would provide excellent evidence of even relatively small radiation exposures, because the film would begin fogging at a mere 5 millirem.

Kodak found nothing. As the reputable scientists who have examined the accident since have emphasized, this totally rules out the theory that public exposure was substantially above background.

Wasserman and his ilk, however, have something better than science. They have... ANECDOTES!
Anecdotal evidence among the local human population has been devastating. Large numbers of central Pennsylvanians suffered skin sores and lesions that erupted while they were out of doors as the fallout rained down on them. Many quickly developed large, visible tumors, breathing problems, and a metallic taste in their mouths that matched that experienced by some of the men who dropped the bomb on Hiroshima, and who were exposed to nuclear tests in the south Pacific and Nevada.
...
In March of 1980, I went into the region and compiled a range of interviews clearly indicating widespread health damage done by radiation from the accident. The survey led to the book KILLING OUR OWN, co-authored with Norman Solomon, Robert Alvarez and Eleanor Walters which correlated the damage done at TMI with that suffered during nuclear bomb tests, atomic weapons production, mis-use of medical x-rays, the painting of radium watch dials, uranium mining and milling, radioactive fuel production, failed attempts at waste disposal, and more.

My research at TMI also uncovered a plague of death and disease among the area's wild animals and farm livestock. Entire bee hives expired immediately after the accident, along with a disappearance of birds, many of whom were found scattered dead on the ground. A rash of malformed pets were born and stillborn, including kittens that could not walk and a dog with no eyes. Reproductive rates among the region's cows and horses plummeted.

Much of this was documented by a three-person investigative team from the Baltimore News-American, which made it clear that the problems could only have been caused by radiation.
The plural of anecdote is not "data." The best longitudinal mortality study of TMI was the Talbott et Al. study published in Environmental Health Perspectives in 2003. (EHP 111: 341-348). Following 32,135 individuals who were within five miles of TMI during the accident, the authors followed their mortality rates between 1979 and 1998. Their findings?
In conclusion, the mortality surveillance of this cohort, with a total of almost 20 years of follow-up, provides no consistent evidence that radioactivity released during the TMI accident (estimated maximum and likely gamma exposure) has had a significant impact on the mortality experience of this cohort through 1998. Slight increases in overall mor- tality and overall cancer mortality persist. The findings of increased risk of LHT for males for maximum gamma exposure and in females for background gamma are of interest and merit continued surveillance to deter- mine if the trend continues. With the excep- tion of breast cancer risk and all lymphatic and hematopoietic tissue (LHT) and maximum gamma exposure, no apparent trends were seen with any of the radiation exposure variables. The slight trend for female breast cancer and likely gamma exposure seen in the earlier update is no longer evident.
Basically, Wasserman's claim that the TMI cohort is unstudied is simply a noisome falsehood. Longitudinal studies have simply discredited his preconceived understanding of the accident. But Wasserman's ravings are not what bothers me. I'm more concerned by the fact that there are still people like Steve Wing, who is trying to push the same discredited scaremongering as genuine science. This is an embarrassment to the University of North Carolina and the field of epidemiology. The tactic of presenting "new studies" at a news conference rather than in a peer-reviewed journal is the kind of tactic employed by cold fusion charlatans and other pseudoscientists. We've humored these people far too long; the public needs to learn that the debate is over, and that they lost.

3 comments:

DV8 2XL said...

Professional liars like this are irritating, but it seems to me that their audience is shrinking. There seems to be a growing number of people that no longer buy uncritically into antinuclear hyperbole.

With any luck the market for this sort of scaremongering will dry up, and these frauds will be relegated to well deserved irrelevance.

Wavefunction said...

Wasserman is outrageous; what about all the deaths caused by chemical and coal-based pollution? "Most infamous industrial accident"? Put me to sleep.

By the way I wanted to inform you about this upcoming book in case you don't already know about it:

Atomic Awakening: A New Look at the History and Future of Nuclear Power- James Mahaffey

drbuzz0 said...

Yeah, it's too bad that we have to resort to these theoretical models and in depth reviews and estimates to try to figure out what the dose is to the public.

It's too bad that there's no way that we could avoid all this and just get a quickly verifiable answer to whether large amounts of radioactivity really were released and the public exposed to them.

Perhaps some day, in the distant future we will have a device that could clear this all up. Rather than having to guess, we might use a tube filled with a gas that becomes momentarily ionized when a photon strikes it. We could combine this with a meter that would count the rate of pulses from the tube. Thus, we would finally be able to know conclusively if TMI or other events did release such energy.

Oh wait. Why does this sound so familiar to me?