March 28, 2009 marks the 30th anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident.

Nobody died at Three Mile Island? Read on.

On the 30th anniversary of TMI, it’s important that we find out what really happened during the accident.

The testimonials recounted here were originally collected during the years right after the 1979 TMI accident and show what really happened to people. I’ve posted them here in digital form because it’s important to get this yet unheard story out to the world.

Aileen Mioko Smith, March 2009

In the summer of 1979, three months after the Three Mile Island accident, a party of five concerned Japanese traveled to central Pennsylvania to study the incident and its aftermath first hand. It was a personal trip for the two lawyers, a student, a radiation research scientist, and Mitsuru Katagiri, university professor and my husband-to-be. When Mitsuru returned home to Kyoto, he confessed that before he left Japan he thought he had basically understood the accident — a barely averted meltdown catastrophe that quite fortunately had probably released only an insignificant amount of radiation. But as they toured the area, he was surprised by the number of people who reported anomalous occurrences during and after the time of the accident; strange tastes and smells; burning, tingling or reddening of the skin; and changes in the local vegetation, animals and atmosphere. This prompted yet another trip that year.

In August of 1980, l joined my husband on his next trip to the area and have since returned six times, including a 10-month stay in the Middletown area, five miles from the reactor site. These visits are part of a continuing effort to understand the accident and its implications for our common future. I have only just begun.

The passages below are excerpts from home interviews we conducted with approximately 250 TMI area residents over the years, from 1979 to 1988. Our purpose was to learn about the accident directly from the people living nearby. We were especially interested in understanding more about the unusual phenomena they had experienced.

Now, ten years after the accident, these widely reported phenomena are still not officially accepted. According to scientists and the government, since the releases were “negligible” the accident’s effects on the environment and the people of the surrounding area should also be negligible. But ten years of cleaning up the damaged Unit 2 reactor has shown that 45% of the fuel did indeed melt during the accident and 20 tons of it dropped to the reactor floor. In light of these findings, the accident has been entirely reassessed — reassessed, that is, as to what went on inside the reactor, but not as to what may have happened outside to the surrounding population and environment. Official interest in understanding what really happened at TMI appears to end at the reactor’s perimeter. The government has never even made an effort to reevaluate what the accident may have released to the environment. The interest and effort exerted to learn about the effects to the outside has been virtually non-existent compared to the tremendous interest and effort to learn about and clean up the reactor inside. An accurate accounting of what escaped is in many ways impossible. But by listening to the people of the area and by learning from the immediate environment, we can perhaps get a clearer idea of what actually occurred at TMI and how it continues to affect those who live in the area.

We have thus chosen to publish our findings in an interview format for several reasons — to counteract the peculiar inattention to local residents’ views and experiences; to reaffirm the original reason for the existence of journalism; and thereby to demonstrate the possibility, indeed the necessity of lay peoples’ participation in the social processes and policies that vitally concern us all.

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