Written by Robert Holloway in 1998
Recently, Helen Caldicott suggested that the public should not eat locally produced food from two areas that she apparently considers contaminated by radioactive materials in the environment. One of these locations is in the vicinity of Three Mile Island, the nuclear plant that had the accident a few years ago. From personal experience I know something about the levels of radioactivity around Three Mile Island and I consider Caldicott’s comments to be irresponsible.
I joined the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1981, a year or so after the Three Mile Island Accident. One of my duties was to supervise the analysis of environmental samples from the area around Three Mile Island. These samples were flown to the EPA laboratory in Las Vegas where we did the work. If there was any contamination to the environment from the damaged reactor, it was not detectable in the samples that we analyzed in Las Vegas during my work in Las Vegas. Some radioactive gases were released in the early stages of the accident, but these were quickly dispersed in the atmosphere and are not present now in the area. This work continued for several years in Las Vegas before being given to another EPA laboratory in Pennsylvania.
To my knowledge the only radioactivity that escaped from the damaged reactor were gases such as radioactive krypton and xenon that were rapidly dissipated in the atmosphere. In my opinion, adverse health effects to the public in the vicinity of Three Mile Island are impossible because of the absence of any significant and persistent contamination. Any significant environmental radioactivity from the reactor would have been detectable in the samples that I worked with in 1981, 1982 and 1983. Obviously if there was no environmental contamination in the early 1980s, there would not be any now.
The government monitoring of the environment around Three Mile Island has been quite thorough since the accident, and any threat to health would have been detected. Any significant amount of radiation cannot escape a determined effort to find it. It is, after all, the interaction of radiation with matter that allows both detection and causes the damage to living tissue. For Helen Caldicott to say that there is a danger from this source shows that she is not well versed in the basic technology of radiation safety.
I recently wrote the following letter to Helen Caldicott asking for evidence to support her view that there is a health risk related to the two installations mentioned in her speech that is quoted at the bottom of this page. I have not yet received a reply and I think it is impossible for her to provide any solid evidence of environmental contamination in these two cases. Here is the letter mailed to her:
February 8, 1998
Dear Helen Caldicott:
I assume that you have received by now, my letter or my previous email asking that you provide evidence of environmental contamination near Three Mile Island and the other location that is mentioned in the news report quoted below. If you will provide such evidence, I will post it on my web page for comment or discussion. If you fail to provide any evidence, I will also make note of that on the web page. You have implied in your public statements that there is radioactive contamination from these two installations, so I don’t see why you are reluctant to provide proof of it. I will wait a few more days for your answer.
If you have made the statements attributed to you without any evidence, then I think you are guilty of misrepresenting the facts of these cases. Of course if you are just trying to scare people without an basis for it, then I think the public needs to know that. As I may have mentioned in my letter, I was personally involved for several years in the analysis of samples from the area around Three Mile Island, and I am convinced that there is no problem whatsoever from that source.
Caldicott’s Response: This space is reserved for Helen Caldicott’s answer. As of May 3, 1998, she has not replied. If and when she does reply, it will be immediately posted here.
News Account of Caldicott Speech
WATERFORD, CONN. — Speaking at a public forum Thursday night, Dr. Helen Caldicott, the noted anti-nuclear activist, called for residents to lie down in front of trucks if necessary to prevent the restart of the Millstone units. She also said people should not buy locally grown food in the summer because of effluent from the plants. Neither, she said, should people eat Hershey chocolate bars because they are produced 13 miles from the Three Mile Island station. The Day, (p. B1); Norwich Bulletin, (p. A1), 1/23.