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Ronnie Sookhdeo

Nuclear Accident Threatens Thousands

(April 1979)

From Militant, No. 450, 6 April 1979, p. 16.
Transcribed by Iain Dalton.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

“I don’t know anything about nuclear power but no power in the world is worth my baby’s life.” This was the tragic comment of a pregnant woman in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the scene of the world’s worst nuclear accident.

On March 28th, the nuclear reactor at ‘Three Mile Island’ plant went irreversibly out of control. Only a miracle prevented the annihilation of 160,000 inhabitants within ten miles of the reactor.

The cause of the accident was the failure of one of the much-heralded failsafe valves on the huge cooling tower. Within minutes, thousands of gallons of water which normally conducted heat away from the reactor core became cracked and overheated.

The resulting reaction produced hydrogen gas which exploded and spewed a deadly mixture of radioactive steam, gases and iodine into the atmosphere.

So serious was the accident that the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission warned of the possibility of a melt-down. This was the worst possible accident a reactor can suffer.

Scientists have calculated that in such an accident over 3,000 people would die immediately; 45,000 suffer appalling injuries and a further 45,000 die of cancer within ten years, assuming that they live in a sparsely populated area.

The authorities, already under tremendous pressure following adverse publicity on the disposal of nuclear waste, and reports showing that the lowest radiation can cause cancer, have issued reassurances that the radiation emitted is no more than you would get at the dentists.

But what is the truth? A mountain of evidence has been recently published linking extremely low dosages of radiation with increases in cancer deaths. Horrifying statistics have come from America.

Studies of death certificates of workers at the Hansford Nuclear plant in Washington have revealed a disturbing high incidence of cancer of the pancreas and leukaemia, even though workers were exposed to levels of radiation well within agreed safety limits of 5 rems per year.

But the most alarming results have come from a chance discovery. The overall cancer death rate among civilian nuclear workers at the Navy’s Portsmouth Shipyard in Kittery, Maine was more than twice the national average, and well above that of the yard’s non-nuclear workers.

These figures were calculated by a doctor who had filed a law suit under the Freedom of Information Act to get access to records.

The navy had good reason for maintaining an iron hold over these records. The results were startling. They showed that the rate of leukaemia was an incredible 450% higher than the general population’s. The incidence of lymph gland cancer was 125% higher. And the workers were only exposed to an astonishingly low one rem of radiation per year.

These studies have conclusively demonstrated that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. Moreover the iodine which was also emitted causes even more serious abnormalities.

For iodine is absorbed into the thyroid gland, which control’s the body’s metabolism. In recent accidents, farmers had to destroy their milk for many months. The authorities already conscious of this have issued similar instructions to farmers.

In the light of the Harrisburg incident, the whole nuclear programme has been questioned.

Can nuclear power be made safe? Are there alternative forms of energy capable of replacing nuclear fission? One thing is: the capitalists, who are only interested in profits not safety or life, cannot be allowed to make these decisions.

I believe that safe, viable alternatives to nuclear fission can be established. But the labour movement must conduct its own thoroughgoing enquiry to answer these questions.

In the meantime it is vital that the labour movement mobilises to ensure that as far as possible health and safety become a key issue in all nuclear establishments.

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