Killing Our Own and Three Mile Island

Killing Our Own


Did People Die from Three Mile Island?

By Robert Holloway

The book, "Killing Our Own" by Norman Solomon and Harvey Wasserman, makes numerous claims that artificial radioactivity has harmed the public in the United States. The book was published in 1982, and this date of publication might seem to be make it somewhat out of date in 1998. However, this book is a prime example of the unjustified fear that many have of nuclear power and radioactivity in general. Both of the authors are still active in the anti-nuclear movement and one of them is on the board of directors of Greenpeace. Several similar books have been published since 1982, and most of them use the same technique of discussing only the evidence that supports their views and ignoring anything that contradicts their views. It will be my objective in this discussion to show how such selective reporting misleads the readers of this and similar books. The discussion on this page is about Three Mile Island.

Many of the claims in the book can be shown to be false and, in my opinion, would not convince an average jury, if both sides were able to present evidence from the best experts in the land. In fact, some of the claims in the book have been litigated in the courts and have been thrown out for lack of evidence.

I have contacted the authors and have sent them a critique of certain portions of their book. I have invited the authors to refute my criticism and told them that I would post it here. They declined to comment on the topic discussed on this page, but they did send me their rebuttal on the topic of the radioactive frog in Mississippi, which can be found on another page at this site. To give some idea of the mindset of the book's authors, I will quote below a portion of the book "Killing Our Own". It is about the time period immediately following the Three Mile Island accident. The title of the chapter from which this quote was taken is "People Died at Three Mile Island".

"But the firing of Gordon MacLeod hardly ended the controversy over the health impact of the accident and how it had been handled. In November, Ernest Sternglass charged that figures from the nearby Harrisburg and Holy Spirit hospitals indicated that infant deaths there had doubled from six during February through April of 1979 to twelve in May through July. Only one infant had died at the Harrisburg Hospital in May through July of 1978; seven had died there in those same three months following the accident. The statistics seemed tragically reminiscent of the era of nuclear bomb testing. The NRC, the state, and the utility had all claimed--as had the AEC after so many atomic explosions--that radiation releases had been too small to have more than a very marginal health impact, if any at all. Sternglass asserted the authorities had failed to account for the extreme sensitivities of fetuses in utero in claiming a very marginal health impact from the accident's releases.[13]"

--------- From the book, "killing Our Own"

It has been almost 20 years since the Three Mile Island accident. History has not been kind to the idea that the accident harmed anyone in the area. There is a web site called the "Junk Science" web site that has published some interesting material about this issue. Here is a quote from that site that includes a quote from the court that decided the issue of possible health effects to residents in the vicinity of the accident. Some residents had sued the utility claiming that they had developed cancer as a result of the accident. The presiding judge refused to allow the case to go to trial because of lack of evidence.

"Although the plaintiffs claimed over 100 rems of exposure (a level experienced by some of the survivors of the atomic bomb explosion at Hiroshima), the court noted that, to win, they would only have to present evidence of exposure to 10 rems of radiation. Still, the plaintiffs failed to produce evidence of even this exposure level."

    As the court stated:

      The parties... have had nearly two decades to muster evidence in
      support of their respective cases... The paucity of proof alleged
      in support of the Plaintiffs' case is manifest. The court searched
      for any and all evidence which construed in a light most
      favorable to Plaintiffs' case creates a genuine issue of material
      fact warranting submission of the claims to a jury. This effort
      has been in vain.

The authors of "Killing Our Own" accepted the theory of Ernest Sternglass without any critical examination of his history or his standing in the radiation protection community. They could have mentioned, for instance, that he had long been viewed as something of an eccentric and a fringe element in the radiation protection community. Even when they wrote their book in the early 1908s, they could have discussed that similar claims by Sternglass had been sharply criticized and rejected a decade previously by the Health Physics Society and many leading experts in the radiation protection community. They could have also mentioned a long list of state and federal agencies that had considered and rejected the claims of Sternglass in regard to mortality and radiation in the environment. They could have mentioned all this, but instead, they confined their mention of opposition to Sternglass to the specific issue of the debate about Three Mile Island. The readers of the book thus were never given full information about how the previous claims of Sternglass had been so fully and completely rejected by the scientific community as well as the regulatory agencies. I will list below some information of this nature. The signers of this 1971 statement were some of the most distinguished members of the radiation protection community.

Statement by the President and Past Presidents of the Health Physics
Society with Regard to Presentation by Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass,
July 14, 1971.


Statement (Read by Dade W. Moeller immediately after Dr, Sternglass'
presentation at the 16th Annual Meeting of the Health Physics Society,
held in New York, New York July 14, 1971)


On the third such occasion since 1968, Dr. Ernest J. Sternglass, at an
annual meeting of the Health Physics Society, has presented a paper in
which he associates an increase in infant mortality with low levels of
radiation exposure.  The material contained in Dr. Sternglass' paper
has also been presented publicly at other occasions in various parts
of the country. His allegations made in several forms have in each
instance been analyzed by scientists, physicians and biostatisticans
in the Federal government, in individual states that have been involved
in his reports, and by qualified scientists in other countries.

Without exception, these agencies and scientists have concluded that Dr.
Sternglass' arguments are not substantiated by the data he presents.  The
United States Public Health Service, the Environmental Protection Agency,
the States of New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Illinois have issued
formal reports in rebuttal of Dr. Sternglass' arguments.  We, the President
and Past Presidents of the Health Physics Society, do not agree with the
claim of Dr. Sternglass that he has shown that radiation exposure from
nuclear power operations has resulted in an increase in infant mortality.

Signed by:

H.L. Andrews, Univ. of Rochester
W.D. Claus (Retired)
F.P. Cowan, Brookhaven Nat. Labs.
Merrill Eisenbud, New York Univ.
W.T. Hamm, Jr., Univ. of Virginia
John R. Horan, USAEC.
Wright H. Langham, LASL
J.S. Laughlin, Sloan-Kettering Memorial Hospital
K.Z. Morgan, ORNL
Claire C. Palmiter, USEPA
C.M. Patterson, Savannah River Lab.
Walter S. Snyder, ORNL
J. Newell Stannard, Univ. of Rochester
L.S. Taylor, NCRP

The following is a list of the various agencies and organizations that found no merit in the mortality claims of Sternglass. This list was prepared by Dr. Bernard Cohen.

Official and Prestigious Refutations of Sternglass up to time he left
Pittsburgh about 1980

Pennsylvania Governor's Fact Finding Committee (1974)
        --made up of 8 distinguished scientists (including K.Z. Morgan)
Statement by all past presidents of Health Physics Society
National Academy of Sciences BEIR Committee
State officials (in public statements) in Ohio, Pennsylvania, West
        Virginia, Illinois, New York, and Michigan
National Cancer Institute
Environmental Protection Agency
U.S. Public Health Service
U.S. Bureau of Radiological Health
American Academy of Pediatrics
Am. Journal of Public Health Editorial
NATURE editorial
Statements by anti-nuclear scientists -- Tamplin, Stewart, Morgan

Bernard L. Cohen
Physics Dept.
University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, PA 15260
Tel: (412)624-9245
Fax: (412)624-9163

The manner in which the authors of "Killing Our Own" deal with the issue of the health effects of Three Mile Island is very typical of their treatment of other topics in their book. They emphasize only the evidence that supports their theory and neglect anything that contradicts their views. In some cases, this neglect is so gross and so obvious that I have to wonder if they have any sense of ethics or feeling of responsibility to their readers.

Surely an author has some responsibility to inform the reader of the evidence on both sides of a controversial issue. To think otherwise is to accept the idea that an author can present only one side of an issue and expect the reader to dig out all of the contradictory information alone. Maybe that is their idea of journalistic ethics but it is not mine. I believe that the public interest is best served when both sides of a serious issue are discussed with great emphasis on finding out the truth of the matter, and not in presenting one side in a manner that is more akin to propaganda rather than fact finding.

Unfortunately, Solomon and Wasserman are not the only anti-nuclear authors who are involved in a propaganda style approach to these issues. I view the book "Killing Our Own" as having no more validity that the outrageous stories often associated with Supermarket tabloids.

There are scientists aplenty in the United States who have the knowledge and ability to refute these tabloid style writers. But very few have any incentive to do so. It is unfortunate that ignorance is prevailing over science on this issue, but that is the case. I do not mean to imply that nuclear power and radioactivity are inherently safe and that therefore there should be no debate. I mean only that the debate should adhere to reasonable ethical and scientific standards.

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