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Three Mile Island 'survivors' group links ailments to partial meltdown in 1979

TMI 'survivors' link ailments to nuke accident
Credit: Chris Dunn, York Daily Record
From left, Stephanie Freed of York, Christine Layman of East Manchester Township, Stacey Griffiths of York County and Joe Rodriguez of Illinois gather for a portrait at Rocky Ridge County Park Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018, in Springettsbury Township. In April 2016, Layman started a Facebook group called "Three Mile Island Survivors," intended for people who believe the 1979 Three Mile Island partial meltdown is related to health issues they or people they know have experienced.

YORK, Pa. — They're battling health issues and grieving lost loved ones — and they are confident that there's an explanation for their suffering. 

Nearly 3,000 people now call themselves "Three Mile Island Survivors" in a private Facebook group.

The group, started in November 2016, believes that the partial meltdown of a Three Mile Island nuclear reactor on March 28, 1979, was far more dangerous than has been publicly acknowledged. They link the incident to myriad health issues they or loved ones have experienced. They say most people disagree with their belief.

​“Most of (the group members) just want the truth,” group administrator Christine Layman said.

The truth as the "TMI survivors" see it: That the incidents of cancer, thyroid issues and other health problems they've experienced can be traced back to the incident at TMI.

More: Three Mile Island nuke plant, scene of partial meltdown, to close

More: Three Mile Island nuke accident linked to thyroid cancer

That notion is explicitly denied by the federal government, which says it draws its conclusions from science. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says no adverse health "could be directly correlated to the accident."

The agency's backgrounder on the incident says the average radiation exposure in the area was significantly less than an X-ray. It says "thousands of environmental samples of air, water, milk, vegetation, soil, and foodstuffs were collected by various government agencies monitoring the area" in their analysis.

And in Layman's experience, many of the general public believe that conclusion. 

Layman says the group of survivors feel pressured to keep quiet about their beliefs for fear of ridicule. She's said her mental soundness has been questioned: Doctors have attributed her beliefs to anxiety and fear.

But she says the truth is hiding in plain sight. 

She sees herself as an example. She says her list of health issues has been unusually long: melanoma, fibromyalgia, thyroid problems, infertility and brain lesions. And she lived in the Strinestown area — a few miles from TMI — during the partial meltdown.

She remembers the evacuation, being told to throw a blanket over her 4-year-old daughter's head and drive away. Being told that it was safe to return days later.

She says that since then, her daughter has had a scare with cancer. Her granddaughter has spina bifida.

“These things could have been avoided,” she said. 

But she considers herself lucky — she's alive. Many in the group have lost loved ones to cancer.

The group's opinion has been formed primarily from their experience. That experience is something Layman says she has a lot of: She started the group after serving as an assistant on forthcoming film "Meltdown," which documents alleged effects of the incident. She said the stories the film will show are heartbreaking: illness after illness.

She refuses to believe all that suffering can exist so close to the scene of the TMI incident and not be linked — somehow.

And some in the scientific community suggest the survivors might be on to something that can be measured, although so far evidence for their claims is thin.

A 2017 Penn State College of Medicine study found a link between the TMI incident and thyroid cancer cases in south-central Pennsylvania. That study was released days after news of the planned closure of TMI.

Speaking of the mainstream view that TMI caused no adverse effects, the study's leader commented, “I’m always wary when people say ‘there’s nothing to see, here.”

David Goldenberg, a surgeon and thyroid researcher, who led the study after seeing anecdotal evidence for a connection, stopped short of saying that the accident “caused” the thyroid cancer, instead saying there’s a “possible correlation” between the accident and the cancer.

Dave Lochbaum, director of the Nuclear Safety Project for the Union of Concerned Scientists, also has reservations about the mainstream view of TMI.

He served as an expert witness in a civil suit against TMI. In a report, he examined the amount of gas that could have escaped from a component of the reactor.

The official account "seemed to always take the low path" in its estimates, he said. Officials were “biased toward 'It's not as bad as it could have been' ” as their conclusion.

But as far as health risks to the public? That's a difficult topic, Lochbaum said.

"The challenge that anybody faces on either side of that debate is that there’s not data to link ... radiation exposure to health consequences," he said.

But to Layman and her survivors, there's plenty of data: “This group is the proof ... we are the proof."

Contributing: Brett Sholtis, York Daily Record