Interviews
Mary Osborn and Eric Epstein
They formed "Three Mile Island Alert," an activist group that continues to monitor radiation levels in the area.
Mary Osborn Q: Do you feel that the plant is safe now?

Eric: Do I feel that Three Mile Island is safe? Well, Three Mile Island Unit 2 is dead. It's extinct. It's a monument to, you know, a warped technology. The basement is still very highly radioactive. They've never had a human entry. So that plan is a de facto low level and high level radioactive waste site in the middle of the river. TMI Unit 1? No. I mean, I'm not really comfortable with a convicted felon operating a nuclear power plant. And I'm [not] sure that any community would feel comfortable with that mix. Unit 1 also has a lot of steam generating tubes that were plugged. So it's like operating an eight-cylinder car with six cylinders, with an escapee from the country prison. I think it's a formula for disaster.

Q: So you've been monitoring, obviously, in and around your home and the surrounding areas, for how many years, then?

Eric: I think, four or five years now.

Q: How frequently have you ever received levels that are above background levels?

Eric: We consistently detect levels above background, when certain things are occurring at Three Mile Island. For instance, when radioactive waste is coming on the island or being shipped off the island, when nuclear laundry is being taken off the island, we can pick up those kind of elevations, actually through their own monitoring system. When they're shut down (and they're shut down every 24 months to refuel), we can consistently pick up high levels of radioactive emissions. So there [are] occurrences and times when we've been able to document [that] there have been elevations coming from the plant.

Q: Now, are these monitors off-site, on-site?

Eric: The Ruder Stokes monitors that pick up elevated levels of radiation, some are on-site and some are off-site. There [are] 16 monitors located in a concentric fashion around Three Mile Island.

Q: Mary, have your feelings regarding nuclear power changed over the last, say, 15,16,17 years or so?

Mary: Yeah. My feelings regarding nuclear energy have totally changed. It was going from a place where my husband actually did work, to having an accident and to learning so much that I know that it is the most evil, most health-degrading type of energy that there is. There's just no doubt. It's just the stupidest way I ever heard of--to boil water to generate electricity. And not only is it expensive, but it's lethal. The whole chain, from the time they take it out of the earth and through the traveling, through the reactor, through taking it back to the spent fuel pools and through the burial, it's lethal, most of it, for hundreds of thousands of years.

Q: Many studies conducted on the population after the accident found no evidence of increased health effects. What do you think about this, Mary?

Mary: As far as the health effects as a result of the TMI accident, even though the industry and the so-called scientific community from our country says there should not be any increase in health effects, the fact is that they, to this day, do not know how much escaped. They could only detect minimum levels. Monitors did go off scale. And the thing that we always go back to is the fact that if nothing happened, if nothing was released, why did people have the metallic taste? Why did they have the skin burns? Why did they have diarrhea, with some people having bloody diarrhea? Why did my child, when we came home after evacuating, have hair loss? I mean, I could see his scalp. Before, he had a real thick head of hair. And I gave him a bath, and all this hair was left in the tub. These, like I said, are radiation symptoms. So not only did people have symptoms in certain areas around Three Mile Island, but later, when we all went door to door, or even going to a public meeting, you would hear people talking about somebody getting a cancer. But early on, before the cancers, we had a doubling of neonatal hypothyroidism downwind of the accident. This is in the Health Department's own data. The Health Department said, "Well, there was only one within the ten-mile radius." But if you go beyond ten miles, the whole way out to Philadelphia, you'd see a string of hypothyroidism cases. It's real interesting. Our Health Department in most of their press releases will tell you there's no increase in cancer, or there's no increase in birth defects. If you get their own data, and if you research it with somebody who knows what the heck they're looking at, you will find that there are increases.

Columbia University did the same thing. They came here, did a study. They practically wined and dined us, into saying that they were going to do this tremendous time-space cluster analysis study. And in mid-stream, they totally change their protocol and do another type study, which I was told it did [because it] was guaranteed not to find any results. But even though Columbia came here and did their study, they found increases in cancer all over the place. But they said they couldn't attribute it to Three Mile Island.

Eric: I think when you look at health effects, Three Mile Island nuclear power, you have to remember, we live in a country where the tobacco industry is still saying tobacco doesn't cause cancer. I mean, there's clearly a profit motive here. And if you look at Three Mile Island, every study that came out on psychological stress, has concluded that we live with elevated chronic stress. That a given. Nobody argues that. On the health front, what happened is that there was a rush to do studies within a year or two after the accident, when we didn't really have any data. We didn't have enough data to determine did anybody get hurt.

And then you have to look at who's conducting the studies. Well, people that are conducting the studies have an economic stake in nuclear power. I mean, this clearly, you know, you can't have the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or the industry conducting studies exonerating themselves. And the most recent study that came out (we're talking August of '96), that took the figures from the Columbia health study. And the Columbia health study said, "Look, there's elevated levels of cancer, but we're reluctant to attribute it to Three Mile Island." Well, the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, their Department of Public Health looked at the data and said, "Look, between '75 and '85 in the Three Mile Island area, there was a five to ten times increase of lung cancer and leukemia." I mean, clearly, it depends on who's doing the study and who has what to gain from the study.

My major concern is, what's happening to the people that have been hurt, killed? Because these people got away with murder. They killed people. And you know, radiation is difficult to pin down.

Now, I'm confident that in the future, what we have to say will be borne out--that people were harmed, people were killed as a result of the Three Mile Island accident. I think what's tragic is those people that actually suffered won't even get as much as an apology.

Q: So you contend, then, that any amount of radiation is a risk?

Eric: Any exposure to radiation is potential overexposure. I mean, it depends on the person. It depends on their history. It depends where you're living. I just don't think it's a healthy thing to go out and, induce yourself to be exposed to artificial radiation.

Q: What do you say to the argument that the normal emissions from nuclear power generation are tiny, compared with natural sources?

Eric: I think that's a bogus argument. I mean, if something occurs naturally, that obviously doesn't make it benign. In the case of radiation, I think most professionals agree that radiation is dangerous. It's carcinogenic. Obviously, it depends if you're being exposed to alpha, beta, or gamma. For someone to come and say that radiation releases from a nuclear power plant are below background, it's an oxymoron.

Q: This area has something like four times the concentration of radon in the area, are you concerned?

Mary: Radon has always been here. The homes have always been here. Even though the newer homes are being built more air-tight, radon has always been here. I really think radon is a minor problem, compared with the routine releases from a nuclear power plant. Most of the radon goes up through the dirt and out into the air. Some of it is trapped into homes. But there are methods in place now where people can alleviate all of that. But a routine operating power plant releases approximately 1,000 curies a month--that is not trivial. And you multiply that times every nuclear power plant in this country or in the world, and you get massive doses. And one of the highest things that is released on a routine basis is krypton-85. And the worldwide levels of krypton-85 are increasing horrendously and exponentially.

Eric: In the radiation monitoring we do we encourage people to do the monitoring, to have radon levels checked in their basement. In fact, we have an agreement with the Department of Environmental Protection to provide a free radon charcoal to those folks. But I think what you have to say to yourself is, if radon is a public health issue (and I think it's something that needs to be addressed), and you just kind of casually dismiss radioactive emissions from nuclear power plant, it doesn't make sense. Okay. Let's say radon is a public health issue. And I think it is something that needs to be addressed. Then so, too, do the daily emissions from a nuclear power plant. I think it's disingenuous and baffling that, you know, "Look, radon is a big public health problem, but emissions from nuclear power plants are not." Something is fundamentally wrong there. What we've found out since the accident at Three Mile Island, people have common sense, and people make pretty good decisions. You're not going to be able to fool them for too long.

Q: Do you believe, then, there's a difference between natural source radiation and that which comes from a nuclear power plant?

Mary: Not in the effect. No, no. Radiation is basically radiation. It's just, one is manmade and one is natural. And the natural, you try to alleviate. But the manmade shouldn't be there.

Eric: The issue that I think we're dealing with is: Is it inconsistent that as an anti-nuclear activist, you're dealing with radioactive emissions but not dealing with radon? Actually, we're dealing with both. But I mean, we're more vigilant and more rigorous in dealing with nuclear power. We think the catastrophic potential is far more serious. With radon, it's an issue that can be dealt with. Obviously, it's a public health issue. But individuals can take action to alleviate radon in their homes. Now, nuclear power, it's a societal issue. We're virtually powerless to shut it down, the way the government works and the amount of power and money that the industry has.

Q: Recently, Judge Rambo threw out the class action suit for TMI victims and said that there wasn't enough evidence of injury to health. Why do you think she did this?

Eric: The fact that Judge Rambo threw out the health suits was not a surprise to us. She had castrated the case early last spring. She became very aggressive in her role as a gatekeeper, that is, what evidence that she's going to admit into court, what evidence the jury's going to be allowed to look at. So what she did first was basically eviscerate our case by throwing out our health experts, people that have impeccable credentials. And then, after she did that, a couple months later, she said, "Well, there's not enough evidence for the case to go forward." So I mean, we weren't surprised. We were dismayed. I think she was overzealous in her role as a gatekeeper. And I'm confident that that decision will be overturned.

Q: Is there any amount of evidence or information that the industry or scientists could give you, or the government, that would convince you to change your mind about nuclear power?

Mary: There is no evidence that anybody, pro-nuclear or anti-nuclear, could give me that would change my mind about nuclear power. None whatsoever. I have learned so much because of this accident. I have just absorbed it from all aspects, pro and anti. And there is nothing safe about radioactivity. And that is the issue. People are human. They make mistakes. And during the accident at Three Mile Island, people made mistakes.

Eric: Nuclear power is dead. It's over. Actually, I don't really spend any time dealing with: Is there going to be another nuclear power plant built? I'm firmly convinced that nuclear power is unsafe, it's uneconomical, and it's opposed by an overwhelming majority of Americans. So it doesn't really make any sense to me to go back and say, "Well, Eric, is there anything you can do that would convince you?" No. I mean, and I think Einstein was right--this is an issue that should be decided by the citizens. And I think the citizens have voted. The citizens distrust the technology. Wall Street distrusts the economic gamble. Nuclear power's dead. It's over. It's that simple.

The problem is, we still have to deal with the back end of nuclear power--decommissioning and decontaminating plants. Our time and energy as an organization, rather, is put towards, how are we going to resolve these problems?

Q: Do you think people are too frightened of radioactivity, or not frightened enough?

Eric: I think nuclear medicine is not a bad thing. I think you'd be foolish not to utilize nuclear medicine if you were faced with a life threatening disease. And let me, up front, say that. I think people are frightened of radiation and radioactivity, not because of anything we've done, but because of the industry. They've continually shot themselves in the foot. I mean, Mary and I didn't go out and cause the Three Mile Island accident. Mary and I didn't go out and cause Chernobyl. Mary and I didn't drop a bomb on Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I think that people read. People are intelligent, and they've made a decision. And the decision is, nuclear power is not safe. Radiation, radioactivity (however you want to term it) is a serious health issue. It causes cancer. It causes disease. And I think at this point, people are alarmed. But I think people are alarmed, legitimately so.

Q: Do you think, Eric, that nuclear power has been one big mistake?

Eric: Nuclear power demonstrates what happens when you go behind the backs of the people. I mean, if people had been apprised as to the costs of nuclear power, both in terms of the health and the financial boondoggles that [would] evolve, I don't think we would have had one nuclear power plant. But we just fast-forwarded. We figured look, we're going to pursue this technology. And the "we" was not the people but the government. And then when the Arab oil embargoes happened, people embraced it as the panacea. Well, it hasn't been the panacea. It's been a hydra. I think it's a curse. Down the road, I fear for our reputation, because I think future generations are going to look at us as just being these crude people who tried to satisfy their own energy needs by penalizing them with toxic and carcinogenic waste.

Q: Do you think we can ever manage this?

Eric: Can we ever manage nuclear power? Yes. By shutting it down. That's how we manage it. Shut it down and clean it up. Let's admit that we made a mistake, which we did make. And let's not, you know, proliferate the mess we have. Let's be honest, for a change, when it comes to nuclear power. It didn't work. It was unhealthy. It was uneconomical. It's time to just be honest. Let's close out the chapter. Unfortunately, I don't think we're going to be able to close it out for centuries to come.

Q: Mary, do you think the media is pro-nuclear power or con, or anti?

Mary: In the 17 years since the accident, many media people have been here. And the media people that do the interviews, the film crews that come with them, or the journalists or photographers, are about 70 to 80 percent anti-nuclear or concerned about nuclear energy or radiation or whatever. When these people come here, they think they have a great story. And a lot of them go back to their editors and they are canned. A writer from Time magazine, who was one of the earliest journalists at the site, the day of the accident, knew by around 9 o'clock that morning, the severity of the accident. He had a connection. The people did some research. He went to a library. And he knew how bad that accident was by 9 o'clock.

He came here about ten years after the accident, maybe '84, '85 (about six years) and wrote a story. He interviewed me. He interviewed Bill Peters. He interviewed a lot of other people. The story was in print, ready to go to the press. And what happened was, the nuclear power industry bought double-page ads in Time magazine for a series of weeks or months. And he called and told my friend that we needed to find somebody else to do the story, because it was never going to go.

So it's not the people that come here, that do the interviews, or that meet the people, or who do the research. It's the people who are the CEOs, the editors, and the people who own these companies. And once again, it boils down to profits.

Q: Do you think the people from the industry can ever redeem themselves?

Mary: Three Mile Island people, the CEOs and the people who did wrong--there were a few who did wrong, not the majority of the workers--never apologized. And I'm not going to say that I hold a grudge forever, but I don't forgive them. I have nothing but contempt for those people, for everybody who knew there was a problem here, who just wanted to keep a paycheck coming in. Because they allowed people to go for years without being treated or examined. And these people ended up getting cancers that, once they hit, people died real soon. They get multiple cancers, multiple type illnesses. And once they're diagnosed, or perhaps they're misdiagnosed, people just die. And I won't forgive them for that. I mean, I won't forgive them for totally altering my life. You know, for 17 years, I'm doing things that a so-called normal human being elsewhere in the country doesn't do. I've learned an awful lot. I've become an expert on certain aspects of nuclear power and its fallout. And I'm not going to thank them for it. But you know, I am real wary of what's been going on, and I'm real concerned for the next time.

Eric: I think, when you talk about the media and the coverage of nuclear power, you have to realize, at the time of the accident, nobody had environmental reporters. People educated themselves on Three Mile Island by going to see "The China Syndrome." I think the media's much more sophisticated now. Dedicated reporters to the environment. And you know, you look at somebody like The Wall Street Journal, who may endorse the concept of nuclear power as a technology, but won't endorse it as an economic investment. I think that says it all.

Q: Eric, what do you think you base your opinion on? Would you say, if you had to break it down, it's a combination of anger and science, anecdote, on science only, on anger only, on proven anecdote only, or something I haven't mentioned?

Eric: I'm a historian. I teach at Penn State University. So I'm very empirical. And I believe you have to verify things through data. I also believe, as an oral historian, it's very important to talk to the people to find out what happened to them. So I don't issue a statement, I don't talk about things unless I can document them. To me, that's the bottom line. But I think it's also very, very helpful to talk to people, and to gauge what their anecdotal observations. This is Bible Belt. This is conservative Republican area. And I trust the people. People don't lie to me. And a lot of the people who have had adverse health effects refuse to sue, because they didn't want to be in a suit. They saw it as too opportunistic. We've bathed our argument in fact. We've backed it up. There have been a number of journalists that are participating in the health suits against Three Mile Island. I know a number of people that cover the issue that died of cancer. And you know, another question I think you need to ask the industry is, if this nuclear power is safe, if it's so safe, why are they reluctant to have a health and cancer registry to track what happens to their workers? They refuse to do so.

Q: Mary, do you have any regrets in the past about your fight? Do you wish you had done anything differently?

Mary: Yeah. We were actually told by an NRC official that it didn't matter what we would do, because Three Mile Island Unit 1 would be restarted. And it was either because they would be able to go to the Supreme Court and take their issue there, they could get an executive order, or they could change the law. And it's really funny, because they have, in essence, done all of that. You had Jimmy Carter, who was on the nuclear sub, who thought he knew everything about radiation. And then you had Ronald Reagan, who just threw out everything that was helping us early on. He threw out all kinds of funding for interveners, and he had Ed Meese, who came here, who also told people that the plant would start up, come hell or high water. So there's no way under the sun that we could have prevented restarting Three Mile Island Unit 1, unless we would have probably blown it up ourselves.

Q: What would you replace nuclear power with?

Mary: Right now, we have the technology to replace nuclear energy with all kinds of alternatives. There's hydrogen, that people don't even talk about, and I think they're afraid of the connection with the hydrogen bomb, which really there is none. There's solar, wind, geothermal. It's everything that people have done research for, that has been shoved under the table. When I was in Tennessee, we went past the solar building for the United States of America. This little building was the size of a garage. And that's where all our solar technology is supposed to be coming from. So you have billions and billions pumped still into the nuclear industry, and there's still nothing in this day and age that's really promoting solar energy.

Eric: Americans like simple answers. They will just tell you, "What next?" Let's wave a wand. What next? I think what we're going to have to do is diversify. Obviously, conservation, weatherization, energy efficiency reduces demand. I think you're going to see smaller, more efficient, decentralized facilities. Maybe it will be co-generation, cleaner coal, or gas, until we get to the point where we can get a benign energy source. But I think the problem with nuclear power is we gambled and lost. So we have to learn from those lessons. And right now, what we're looking at is electrical competition. And that is scaring a lot of people, because they have been basically, you know, regulated monopolies. And I think what we'll see within the next five, ten, fifteen years, hopefully, is more of a diversification, more of a decentralization of electrical generation.


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