Final Project – VP

Democracy in Decline: Faith and Trust at Three Mile Island


On the morning of March 28, 1979, a coolant pressure release hatch, intended for emergency pressure reduction, was accidently stuck open at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station. As a result, most of the coolant inside the reactor escaped and made its way into various parts of the facility. Lack of coolant led the main reactor to overheat and resulted in a partial meltdown of the core and the uranium fuel. This contaminated all water in circulation and led to the reactor being shut down. Over the next few hours and days, water and air leaked from the facility into the air and earth. Among this leaked radiation was a large cloud of radioactive gas called Xenon-133. This cloud traveled south from the incident and encountered large populated areas in its path before it dissolved.[1]

During the first hours of the incident, Metropolitan Edison, owner of Three Mile Island, tried to contain the incident. Having failed to do so, they informed the local authorities, prompting an emergency evacuation of the general vicinity. In the confusion, some 150,000 people left the area, uncertain about the situation. Over the next few weeks, the authorities began giving the green light, and residents returned. However, questions remained. The scope of the incident was not yet clear. Potential contamination and exposure to radiation, though unconfirmed, were on everyone’s mind. Lack of information fueled uncertainty. People were distrustful of information, unsure if they were still in danger, unsure if the reactors would malfunction again. The state government continued to rely on Metropolitan Edison, owner of Three Mile Island Reactor 2, to provide accurate and timely information on the severity of the danger. After several days of misleading, contradictory, and false statements the governor intervened directly. The lack of initiative displayed on part of the Metropolitan Edison and the government was disturbing to the public. This was exacerbated further over the next few years, when state courts and regulators allowed Metropolitan Edison to pass on the cost of cleanup and decontamination to the consumer in the form of raises in the cost of services. Due to conflicting and inconclusive data and reports, the amount of radiation released during the incident remains an unsettled issue. Even though several credible sources have over the last four decades linked the Three Mile Island incident to various health concerns in the local population, the government has refused to acknowledge them. Since the beginning of the incident, the government has failed time and time again to protect and represent the people. This has led to a decline in faith and trust in the government by the people of south-central Pennsylvania.

My paper examines and documents political history. It observes the effect a historical event has had on the political structure of the region. Three Mile Island incident led to loss of faith in the government by the people of south-central Pennsylvania, as proven by many comprehensive primary sources I present below.

My paper will explain and dissect my thesis in close detail. I will list and address all the ways in which the government has failed the people of south-central Pennsylvania. I will provide evidence to prove those failures. I will then provide evidence that links those failures to the decline in faith in the government on the part of the people of south-central Pennsylvania. In the end, I will link all the failures of the government and their subsequent repercussions in the form of loss of faith.

When Metropolitan Edison first received report of the incident at Three Mile Island, they attempted to contain it and cover it. However, as the scope of the meltdown unraveled, and the leakage of radioactive materials took place, Metropolitan Edison had no choice but to involve the government. They assured the local authorities of their handling of the incident and requested an evacuation. The authorities complied, and over the next few days received false, contradictory memos from Metropolitan Edison. After four days, the governor intervened personally and involved the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. These events had caused a great deal of disturbance in the local population.

As the meltdown was brought under control over the next week, the question of radiation emerged. The NRC sent teams to take Geiger readings on and off the site. They were off the charts. Many took this as proof of radiation exposure, but the NRC came to a different conclusion. According to the report, the readings being high was a momentary event unrepresentative of overall readings. Most people did not find the NRC’s report convincing. They had grown very skeptical of the government at this point. In fact, Cindy Folkers of Beyond Nuclear International, a radiation expert, told me in an interview, “The Kemeny commission…said that there were a lot of monitors that weren’t working. Some of those monitors were pegged, meaning that they were registering zero, when in fact there was so much radiation flooding them they could not properly take a measurement.”

The cleanup of Three Mile Island cost over a billion dollars.[2]Metropolitan Edison attempted to collect this amount by increasing prices on their consumer utilities. This move was extremely unpopular and Metropolitan Edison attempted to get the government’s permission before proceeding. The state authorities expressed approval and a state court deemed it lawful. As a result, Metropolitan Edison was able to pass on the cost of the incident to the people of south-central Pennsylvania. To citizens and especially to activists, Metropolitan Edison, rather than being punished for their negligence and errors, was not even getting a slap on the wrist. This further diminished their trust in the government.

In 1981, after over 15,000 complaints from local residents, the TMI Public Health Fund was established with an endowment of $5 million.[3]Its objective was to fund research and ascertain the truth of radiation exposure to the community. However, it was widely berated for its close ties to the nuclear industry. Conspicuously, Federal Judge Sylvia Rambo established two stipulations for anyone wishing to utilize this fund for research. As phrased by Cindy Folkers of Beyond Nuclear International, “

  1. Those studying the health impact of Three Mile Island radiation emissions were prohibited from assessing “worst case estimates” of radiation releases unless such estimates would lead to a conclusion of insignificant amount of harm — that being “less than 0.01 health effects”.
  2. If a researcher wanted to claim more harm or investigate a worst-case scenario, an expert selected by nuclear industry insurers would have to “concur on the nature and scope of the [dosimetry] projects.”

”.[4]With these stipulations, most research was essentially hamstrung. It was impossible for them to establish a link between radiation and health concerns unless approved by the industry.

Three major studies were conducted in the 1980s and 1990s. Two were conducted using money from the TMI Public Health Fund. Researchers from Columbia University and Pittsburgh University, though observing an increase in various forms of cancer, could not attribute it to Three Mile Island. A study published in 1997, by researchers from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, linked Three Mile Island to increased rates of cancer. This is the only study that was funded independently.

Whereas the Columbia and Pittsburgh studies relied on sensors, monitors, and other radiation gauges, the UNC study relied on biological data. Chromosomes tests pioneered during the 1960s nuclear tests and later after Chernobyl are believed to be good indicators of radiation exposure. According to radiation expert Cindy Folkers, biological data is more accurate predictor of radiation exposure than the methods used by earlier researchers. Tests conducted by Dr. Steven Wing detected 600-900 milligrays of radiation exposure. According to Cindy Folkers, this is thousands of times higher than the normal dose of radiation.

In May 2017, Dr. David Goldenberg of Penn State College of Medicine conducted a preliminary study examining the effect Three Mile Island may have had on rates of thyroid cancer in the area. According to Dr. Goldenberg, he had been seeing many patients with thyroid cancer, and all of them believed their cancer was caused by Three Mile Island. Dr. Goldenberg own anecdotal observation was he had noticed higher rates of thyroid cancer in the area than was normal. His study concluded “Findings were consistent with observations from other radiation‐exposed populations. These data raise the possibility that radiation released from TMI may have altered the molecular profile of TC in the population surrounding TMI.[5]” He noticed similarities between his thyroid patients and other groups exposed to radiation.

Many have taken this as solid proof of radiation exposure. Christine Layman was a 21-year-old living in York County at the time of the incident. She developed cervical cancer at the age of 34. Her daughter developed cervical cancer at 4, and Layman attributes the illnesses to Three Mile Island. After the study came out, she said in an interview to WHYY, “Just from what I’m hearing, this study is going to help validate these peoples’ stories, because they feel like nobody believes them.[6]” To compound the frustration, neither the government nor the NRC has addressed or acknowledged this study.

In 1982, there was a study released in the American Journal of Public Health that documented a 43% increase in the rate of infant deaths immediately following the incident. The government attributed these findings to higher levels of stress and tried to reassure the public. At this point, there was little the government could do to save face. Christine Layman says in her interview with me, “It was probably even more than that because I would see my neighbors and everybody was having brain tumors, and everyone was having miscarriages. I myself could not get pregnant after my daughter. I became infertile.” Christine Layman administers a group of 4000 members on Facebook. The members all have cancer or have a close family member who has cancer. Their deep suspicion of the government is what unites them. Christine’s group is for people who believe their health has been ruined by Three Mile Island and are looking to share their story.


This image is of a poster made in 1980. The poster is created to recruit members for the activism group it is made by, REMEMBER T.M.I. COALITION. The poster was most likely mass-produced and distributed to points of high population-density. It was then exposed to ordinary people. For maximum effect, these people were most likely those who were personally affected by Three Mile Island, the people who had to evacuate the TMI proximity. This image sums up the paradigm shift that the incident at Three Mile Island contributed to: grass-roots activism and distrust of authority.

This is a dark image. Everything is black and white except one line: “THE ACCIDENT IS NOT OVER”. The upper-case letters and the deep scarlet text catches the eye. The red implies immediate danger. In today’s colloquial vocabulary, we would call the line a click-bait. It is meant to grab attention of the unsuspecting passerby. It implies there is something secret and dangerous about TMI that they haven’t been told.

We next move on to the image of the twin reactors. The reactors are completely black against a white background. The designers of this poster could have included more texture, more color, more details. They could have made the reactor less ambiguous, but they didn’t. This serves a purpose: the air of mystery is maintained. It hammers in the other-worldliness of the contents of the poster. They are not something that concern ordinary people. They are special and therefore something worth responding to.

I also see something very interesting. In other similar images, the nuclear reactors are always showed with thick, black smoke billowing out of the chimney. Here we see nothing. Just the dark outline of the reactors against a clear background. The smoke implies pollution, but this empty bleakness implies something much more dangerous; secrecy. The conspicuous lack of any sign of human activity suggests secrecy. Something that has been covered up. This might be bit of a stretch, but it is eerily reminiscent of the “secret government sites” that had captured public fascination in the era of the cold war. We have seen images and outlines like this poster in popular entertainment like the Twilight Zone.

Below the outline we see two cows. A lot of information is presented in thought bubbles that originate in the cows, but before we get to that let’s take a closer look at the two cows.

When US nuclear testing first began in the southwest, one of the major concerns of local people was cow poisoning. The fallout from the tests was believed to effect cows negatively. Their milk would be radioactive and their meat inedible. As such, these cows became symbols of resistance to the nuclear bomb. It is interesting to see them here because it contributes to a recurring theme in this image; that nuclear generators like Three Mile Island are essentially atom bombs.

Moving on to the content of the though bubbles, we see the title of the first bubble is large and upper-case. The text is striking as well: “ONE YEAR LATER, THE CONTINIUING THREAT”. All of this implies urgency. Beneath the title, we see three bullet points that sum up the objectives of this activist group. The group wants TMI and Oyster Creek plants closed and the construction of Forked River plant stopped. The poster doesn’t refer to these plants as “plants”. It refers to them as “nukes”. This obviously implies that the plants are not nuclear powered plants designed to produce electricity, but rather atom bombs. By changing the vocabulary, the poster accomplishes a narrative victory. The plants are not really accidents, but rather lethal atom bombs. This accident was not really an accident, but something approaching nuclear detonation. The third bullet point states the cost of accident and cost of decontamination should be paid by the stockholders rather than the public. GPU Corporation, owner of TMI at the time of the incident, had successfully sued the government and shifted the cost of cleanup to the consumer via price hikes.

The second thought bubble advertise a sit-in. It gives the date, time, address, etc. The words SIT-IN are upper-case and large, so as to capture the essence of the bubble. Once the observer has read SIT-IN, their attention glides over the rest of the info. Phone numbers are provided for more info.

At the very bottom, the name of the group is provided along with a small caption, “Labor Donated.” This caption also implies the authenticity of this poster. The creators are not paid to do this. They are community organizers, which makes them more trustworthy in the eyes of most people.

This poster was created one year after Three Mile Island, and it is a relic of the dynamism of its era. People were organizing on the local level to bring about the change they wanted to see in the world. They were not bothering with the democratic and legal processes. The belief that the government existed to serve the people was gone. People believed the government was bought and controlled by rich elites who didn’t care about them. So they turned to community organizing and split within interest groups. This process of activism has been the most vocal and influential conduit of communal change for the last few decades.

The government has failed the people of Pennsylvania on many levels since 1979. From the very beginning, the government has consistently not represented the electorate, but few specialized interests. The government failed to act decisively when news of the incident first broke. It then failed to make the industry pay for the cleanup, instead punishing the electorate with higher utility prizes. After overwhelming evidence pointing to radiation exposure and health hazards, the government failed to address these, and still does to this day.

Trust is the most fundamental resource for the sustenance of civilization. Trust is what has allowed humans to emerge from our lawless past and establish democracy. It is literally the foundation of the sociological world. Irrespective of the objective truth about Three Mile Island, the government should take action to address the questions people have. If all this accomplishes is people feeling a closer connection to the government, it will be well worth it. Christine Layman told me in her interview, “The people in this group [Facebook group Christine administers] just want their illnesses validated.” All the government needs to do is acknowledge the situation as it is.

[1]“Backgrounder on the Three Mile Island Accident,” United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission – Protecting People and the Environment, , accessed May 16, 2019,

[2]Douglas Martin, “3 MILE ISLAND: FINANCIAL FALLOUT,” The New York Times, January 13, 1981, , accessed May 16, 2019,



[5]Goldenberg, D. , Russo, M. , Houser, K. , Crist, H. , Derr, J. B., Walter, V. , Warrick, J. I., Sheldon, K. E., Broach, J. and Bann, D. V. (2017), Altered molecular profile in thyroid cancers from patients affected by the Three Mile Island nuclear accident. The Laryngoscope, 127: S1-S9. doi:10.1002/lary.26687

[6]Brett Sholtis, “Thyroid Cancer Study Re-ignites Debate over Three Mile Island Accident’s Health Effects,” WHYY, March 16, 2019, , accessed May 16, 2019,

Folkers, Cindy. “Cindy Folkers Interview.” Online interview by author. April 20, 2019.