TMI & Chernobyl


In the academic literature, it’s widely held that the disasters at Three Mile Island (TMI) and Chernobyl are failures in risk communication. It’s useful to revisit these cases as the international media (ABC News & BBC as examples) likens Fukushima-Daiichi reactor problems to TMI (a partial core meltdown) and Chernobyl (continuing public health and environmental predicament).

Below, I share a few findings on nuclear secrecy* from a book chapter that will (hopefully) be published in the near future. In previous posts, I blogged a bit about TMI that included perspectives by Drs. Sternglass and MacLeod, but now offer this research as a backdrop to continuing revelations about the reactor situation in Japan. Although existing information indicates that Tepco (Tokyo Electric and Power Company) has a shaky public image due to “having falsified maintenance documents in 29 cases” (translated from Der Spiegel, 12/03/11), the global community has yet to learn the full story. And yet, Fukushima doesn’t exactly conform to the same typology of secrecy and communication failure that defined TMI and Chernobyl. If there are parallels though, perhaps they lie generally in the sudden shifts of conflicting information as occurs in the wake of disasters and specifically, the lack of details shared with the public on rad releases and monitoring.** Fukushima is the first nuclear disaster to capture the Web; as the disaster spreads out, the world is watching through youtube and “listening” through twitter. Risk is real. Information plays a substantial role in reducing uncertainty and we want all of it now.

Snippets from my chapter:


The Three Mile Island Unit-2 accident on March 28, 1979 is noteworthy for its complicated information flow and botched communication of risk to the public. In the wake of the accident, the Carter Administration created the President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island, which then mandated the Public’s Right to Know Task Force to investigate the accident. The Task Force (1979) performed a content analysis of mass media coverage on the TMI accident, finding among other issues, the press misreported radiation releases. Moreover, the Task Force revealed the press secretary to the governor of Pennsylvania ordered the Bureau of Radiation Protection “to stop talking to the press about the accident” (p. 215). The Task Force also found:

  • At the time of the accident, there no disaster plan was in place at TMI (p. 3).
  • The NRC and MetEd (who ran the plant) made no provision for getting information from the people who had it, to the people who needed it – it was often mistaken for a cover-up (p. 4).
  • Certain kinds of information were not released as MetEd wanted to “confirm” information before it was released to both the public and regulators. The Task Force found there was a “marked capacity for self deception” (p. 7).
  • Due to MetEd’s “lack of forthrightness,” the state of PA and the NRC “formed an alliance” against the utility; there was no plan in place to provide information to concerned parties as the accident unfolded (p. 54).

In addition to the above-mentioned issues, the Amish population that lived in the area of Three Mile Island was never informed of the accident as they had no access to television or radio. It appeared to those near the accident “that important information about their exposure to radiation and the stability of the plant was withheld or not timely” (Goldsteen &Schorr, 1991, p. 34).

In an investigation of radiation effects post-accident, Dr. Ernest Sternglass (1980) used the Monthly Vital Statistics reports to locate the number of reported infant deaths per month, which “rose from a minimum of 141 in March of 1979 just before the accident to a peak of 271 in July, declining again to 119 by August.” This finding led Dr. Sternglass to observe “this is an unprecedented and highly significant rise of 92% in the summer months when infant mortally normally reaches its lowest values” (p.1). Within the contemporary medical and health physics literature there remains a state of inconclusiveness regarding harm; research continues on risk from radiation released to the environment from the Three Mile Island accident (Hatch, Wallenstein, Beyea, Nieves, & Susser, 1991; Wing, Richardson, Armstrong, & Crawford-Brown, 1997; Mangano, 1997).


As early as 1971, a Soviet writer raised “serious questions about the highly experimental design and exceptionally fast construction” at Chernobyl, and a month before the disaster, “a well-informed and harsh indictment of conditions” was written by local resident Lyubov Kovalevska and published in a Ukrainian newspaper (Hoffman, 1986, p.33).

Ivan Makarenko, head of Narodichi Regional Civil Defense reports the Politburo’s “terse acknowledgment” of the Chernobyl accident came nearly three days after the accident occurred (Hoffman, 1986; Marples, 1986). Information was limited in “severely restricted doses” (Chernousenko, 1991, p.76). Even Chernobyl’s Deputy Chief Designer, Yevgenii Akimov, was not informed of the accident until “the first pieces of information -contradictory and secret -arrived on April 28th”; Akimov deduced “a large radiation accident occurred” from unclassified data (Chernousenko, 1991, p. 115-116).

In his memoir “A monologue about a lunar landscape” written after the Chernobyl accident, teacher Yevgeny Alexandrovich Brovkin (2005) observes:

…in the few days after the accident, all the books on radiation, on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, even on X-rays vanished from the libraries. There was this rumor that this was an order from authorities to keep people from panicking…there was not medical recommendations, no information…But there was something else. I wondered why there was a silence about Chernobyl, why our writers wrote so little about it, but kept writing about the war and the camps… we do not know how to make sense of the horror. So is it better to remember or forget? Memory is in our power (p.71-2).

According to Shlyakhter and Wilson (1992), the most serious coverup involved the deposition of radionuclides more than 100 kilometers northeast of Chernobyl between the towns of Gomel and Mogilev in Belarus, and northeast of the Russian town of Bryansk. In these areas, more than 40 curies of cesium-137 per square kilometer were deposited, leading to a lifetime dose of more than 20 rems (Shlyakhter & Wilson, 1992, p.25). This information was included in a draft of the Soviet Union’s report to the IAEA meeting in Vienna from 25 to 29 August 1986, but later removed “following orders from ‘higher up’ (according to one source, the order was given by Nikoali I. Ryzhkov, then Prime Minister), were not made public until March 1989” (Shlyakhter & Wilson, 1992, p.25). Nuclear physicist Irina A. Zykova (2007) dispatched to the “contaminated Russian territories,” reports that “radiation hygienists could not believe their eyes as they measured contamination in the landscape and in food products” (p. 208).

While the number of deaths from the Chernobyl disaster is controversial – the World Health Organization and the International Atomic Energy Administration estimate 9,000 deaths and approximately 200,000 people suffered from radiation sickness and cancers (Yablokov, 2009a, p.32), an exhaustive, systematic review of Chernobyl data and risk models reported in the Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences (2009) questions official accounts and morbidity statistics. The conclusions are unsettling – in fact, controversial in the health physics and environmental literature – with a forecast of more than 212,000 to 245,000 deaths in Europe and 19,000 in the rest of the world (Yablokov, 2009b, p.161).  The Annals review also suggests concerted falsification of medical statistics 3.5 years after the accident, as well as incomplete medical histories for citizens in the “Ukraine, Belarus, and Russia, including health data for hundreds of thousands of people who left the contaminated territories” (Yablokov, 2009a, p.33).


*There’s not a great definition of nuclear secrecy floating about, so I created one:

The intentional blocking, compartmentalizing, concealment, control, distorting, hoarding, censoring, and manipulation of information related to the numerous dimensions of historic and ongoing atomic or nuclear fuel cycle activities, including access to information related to pollution, risk, public health, waste, and weapons development. Nuclear secrecy is institutionalized through bureaucratic organization, statute, regulation, decree, security classification of information, language, control of the media, and informal practices, carrying with it some type of penalty for disclosure such as harassment, monetary fines, incarceration, and other means of silencing individuals.


** Citizens’ Nuclear Information Center (CNIC) is closely following info flow @ Fukushima. From Philip White, International Liaison Officer, CNIC:


Brovkin, Y.A. (2005). A monologue about a lunar landscape. In S. Aleksievich, S. (Ed.), (K. Gessen, Trans.), Voices from Chernobyl (pp. 71-72). Normal, ILL:  Dalkey Archive.

Chernousenko, V. M. (1991). Chernobyl insight from the inside. New York: Springer Verlag. Retrieved from

Goldsteen, R. L. & Schorr, J.K. (1991). Demanding democracy after Three Mile Island. Gainesville: University of Florida Press.

Hatch, M.C., Wallenstein, S., Beyea, J., Nieves, J.W., & Susser, M. (1991).Cancer rates after the Three Mile Island accident and proximity of residence to the plant.  American Journal of Public Health 81, 719-724.

Hoffman, E. P. (1986). Nuclear deception: Soviet information policy. Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 43(7), 32-37.

Mangano, J. J. (1997). Low-level radiation harmed humans near Three Mile Island. Environmental Health Perspectives, 105(8). Retrieved from

Marples, D. (1986). Chernobyl and nuclear power in the USSR. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Shlyakhter, A., & Wilson, R. (1992). Chernobyl and glasnost: the effects of secrecy on health and safety. Environment, 34(5), 25-30.

Sternglass, E. J. (1980) Infant mortality changes following the Three Mile Island Accident. January 25, Presented at the 5th World Congress of Engineers and Architects, Tel-Aviv, Israel. Retrieved from

United States. President’s Commission on the Accident at Three Mile Island. Public’s Right to Know Task Force. (1979). Report of the public’s right to information task force. Washington: Government Printing Office.

Wing, S., Richardson, D., Armstrong, D., & Crawford-Brown, D.  (1997). A reevaluation of cancer incidence near the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant: The collision of evidence and assumptions. Environmental Health Perspectives, 705, 52-57. Retrieved from

Yablokov, A.V. (2009a). Chernobyl’s public health consequences: Some   methodological problems. Chernobyl consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 1181, 31-41.

Yablokov, A. V. (2009b). Oncological diseases after the Chernobyl catastrophe:  Chernobyl consequences of the catastrophe for people and the environment.  Annals of the New York Academy of  Sciences 1181, 161-191.

Zykova, I. A. (2007). Environmental risk perception after Chernobyl. In M. R. Edelstein,  M. Tysiachniouk , & L. V. Smirnova (Eds.).Cultures of contamination: Legacies of  pollution in Russia and the U.S.(pp. 205-221). Boston: Elsevier.