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Meltdown: Three Mile Island

Rick Parks, whistleblower: “We’ll never have a viable nuclear industry in this country until we take the profit motive out of it.”

Netflix’s four-part series takes a look over the years at what really happened at Three Mile Island, the site of the worst nuclear accident in the United States.

Meltdown: Three Mile Island combines: footage from the late 1970s and the 1980s, usually news clips; recent interviews with people who had some involvement with the incident; and some dramatization of past events that could not possibly have been caught on camera. With the third, the creators decided to use colors and graininess to match the 1970s and 1980s, but sometimes you know it must be a dramatization. First, there are scenes that could not possibly have been filmed; second, there are giveaways such as cars being sparkly clean, something that you would not expect when everyone in Middletown, Pennsylvania was under so much stress.

The documentary is a great way to educate people on the US’s worst nuclear accident, and to learn how much we do not know, in part due to incompetence, but also due to cover up. Given the danger and the event that did not happen (the wipe out of the east coast), too, it wasn’t hard to make the documentary exciting. The first episode is devoted to the day of the accident; the others cover longer periods of time. The story is not just about what happened that day, but what happened afterwards, and the day of the actual accident is not the only time the region was in danger.

One of the main players in the documentary is Rick Parks. He narrates part of it, and he is central to the third episode, as he is the whistleblower. Parks, who received his nuclear training in the navy, originally believed in the promise of nuclear energy. In the 1970s, the cost of being dependent on foreign oil was hurting the US; OPEC had raised prices and caused huge bursts of inflation. There was less concern, alas, about the environment and very little talk of the climate crisis. Nuclear energy was perceived as clean, or at least as clean as other energy sources. Besides, it was cool, a high-tech solution, and perhaps a way to justify the great expenditures on nuclear bombs, via a peaceful, useful application.

Rick Parks, his evolution, or how he went from being a proponent of the nuclear energy to working to stop the management at Three Mile Island, is a large part of the story. So are the threats against him. The attitudes of the residents of Middletown also experienced huge shifts in their attitudes. Several of them explain how they had viewed activists with disdain, how they had thought people had no right to act against the government, to discovering that the management of TMI and at least one arm of the government had been actively lying to them.

The documentary also includes: Lake Barrett, who worked for the government’s Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) and comes off as very defensive; Michio Kaku, a physicist, to help us understand the physics of what is going on; and Billie Garde, who worked for the Government Accountability Project and who helped Rick Parks when he was desperate to prevent an act that could have led to the deaths of two million people.

One reason there hasn’t been more reporting on TMI is because many key statistics are missing. We don’t know the actual amount of the radiation leak, because it wasn’t properly measured. We don’t know what the cancer rate was, because data weren’t properly captured. There are plenty of anecdotal reports of much higher cancer rates, but it’s hard to nail down.

Now, I was alive back in 1979. Given the situation at that time, I understand that some of the reluctance to be honest about the problems in the nuclear industry came from good intentions. People were concerned that a serious problem could destroy the nuclear energy industry, which many were hoping would let us have our cake and eat it too.

It reminds me of how, when I received my most recent phone ordered via Amazon, it arrived with instructions only in Chinese and when I turned it on, my screen was only in Chinese. My husband played with it, accidentally called emergency services (fortunately no one showed up) and then we took it to a Taiwanese student of his. The young man laughed, set the phone’s language to English, and it has been fine since. However, when I posted my warning on Amazon, Amazon deleted my negative review.

Of course, Amazon’s cover-up was not the same as the cover-up in the nuclear industry. I was reporting a real problem, but one that could be fixed easily by a conversation with the manufacturer. I was inconvenienced and irritated, but my life was never in danger.

It is possible to have a strictly regulated industry; an example is the airline industry. Plane accidents and near misses are investigated. That would have been a good role model for the nuclear industry. Also, when you realize that we can send rovers to Mars, and have them work when they get there, is evidence that we ought to have been able to make nuclear energy work. Perhaps the problem is, as Rick Parks says, the profit motive.

Remarks on individual episodes

The Accident: In 1979, a plant malfunction causes confusion and a radiation leak. As fear spreads, so does suspicion that the authorities are concealing the truth. Note that it also occurs at 4 am, when people are tired. It takes them more time than it should to figure out what happened.

Women and Children First: Panic strikes the community as a full-blown catastrophe looms. Locals mobilize to confront the authorities and protest the nuclear power industry. What they fear – a hydrogen bubble bursting – is what happened seven years later at Chernobyl.

The “women and children first” title refers to the decision to evacuate. This covers a period of uncertainty for everyone, from the day after the accident to the point where they finally get a camera down, several years later, to start getting a grip on the situation.

The Whistleblower: During cleanup at the plant, insiders claim that cost-cutting measures and intimidation tactics create a danger far worse than the accident itself. Alas, no good deed goes unpunished. Rick Parks had concerns about the safety of the clean-up and when he tried to raise them with management and with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), a bag of pot was planted in his vehicle’s toolbox (amazingly, he found it before they did and flushed it); his apartment was ransacked; he lost his position.

Fallout: Despite disturbing revelations of wrongdoing at Three Mile Island before and after the accident, the utility fights to bring the plant back online. We get follow up on cancers, employment history, and the nuclear industry. We also discover that when cleanup finally continues, Rick Parks was right.

Bits and pieces

Americans were much thinner in the late 1970s and 1980s.

I generally admire President Carter, but I think his government did a whitewash with its first investigation.

Some technical parts could be better explained, although perhaps I just needed a second viewing.

The China Syndrome, a movie about covering up problems in the nuclear industry, came out twelve days before the accident. The nuclear industry was furious with the film, claimed it was complete fabrication – and then the TMI accident happened.

Quotes

News reporter: It is now apparent that the nuclear accident that occurred on Wednesday morning was a lot more complicated and a lot more serious than the public was first led to believe.

Michio Kaku: The future of nuclear energy hung in the balance.

Resident: They were either lying to us, or they didn’t know what they were doing... I went from housewife to activist.

Overall rating

An excellent documentary on an event that was swept under the rug. No one went to prison. Some people lost their jobs (including those who should not have). However, the accident effectively ended the nuclear industry in the United States. Only two plants have been authorized since it happened, and neither of those plants has come on line. Fortunately we seem to have less dangerous forms of energy available now. Three and a half out of four baggies of planted pot.

Victoria Grossack loves math, birds, Greek mythology, Jane Austen and great storytelling in many forms.

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