BP Oil Spill Is No Three Mile Island - But Why?

David Rose :: Friday, July 2nd, 2010 9:00 am

“Do I think this BP spill is going to be the Three Mile Island of off-shore drilling? I don’t think so.”
- Mississippi governor Haley Barbour

1979 was a banner year for energy-industry disasters in the United States.

In the course of two months, two massive environment-wrecking events occurred that became the highlight of news reels all summer long. Public outrage reached a fevered pitch, culminating in a week-long concert series at Madison Square Garden by Musicians United for Safe Energy. Massive citywide protests erupted on both coasts and within the Beltway. One such protest in New York City attracted estimates of 200,000 citizens along with A-list movie stars like Jane Fonda and up-and-coming activists such as Ralph Nader.

Curiously, all this ire was directed at only one of the two culprits. The first of the two disasters of 1979 took the brunt of all the protest, was the focus of political rhetoric, and could be blamed for the decline of an entire industry for the next 30 years. The second disaster resulted in silence and was doomed to be repeated.

The Three Mile Island incident was and still is the worst accident involving nuclear energy to occur in the United States. Unit 2 of the nuclear plant at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania suffered a partial core meltdown due to a jammed coolant-release valve, resulting in the release of 13-million curies of radioactive gases (a curie is the unit used to measure the release of radioactivity).

The resulting hysteria concerning radiation poisoning, destruction of farmland, risk of birth defects and relocation of local population led to a complete and total loss of public trust in the ability of the nuclear industry to operate in a safe way or to protect the livelihoods of the citizens who would eventually be buying its products. After the Three Mile Island incident, only 53 of the 149 planned power plants were completed. As a result, in 2010 less than 20% of the US energy needs are met by the nuclear industry, increasing our dependence on foreign and hard-to-reach oil.

In retrospect, the accident, though substantial, was not as horrible as the protesters were led to believe. Not a single person died or was injured as a result of the accident. The voluntary evacuation of 140,000 residents of Harrisburg was executed swiftly, and many returned home within months. Lasting environmental damage was confined to the actual physical location of Unit 2, and by 1988 Nuclear Regulatory Commission certified that the remaining radioactivity no longer posed a threat to public health and safety. Post-accident surveys revealed that the average radiation exposure by persons close to the event was 8 millirems, or the amount of radiation received during a common chest x-ray.  

On the other hand, The Deepwater Horizon spill has been dumping anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 barrels of oil a day into the waters of the Gulf since the failure of a blow-out preventer on April 20. This is the worst accidental release of oil in world history. The slick has killed millions of fish, birds, dolphins, turtles, and whales. As it encroaches upon the coasts of the gulf, it is endangering plant and animal life on the shore, as well as impacting humans and their livelihoods. Gulf residents are getting sick from the oil, and many are losing their primary means of survival as the oil chokes fisheries.

The scorecard so far: Number Killed by TMI: 0; Number Killed by DH: 11. Livelihoods permanently destroyed by TMI: 0; By DH: Untold numbers of fishers, small businesses, real estate and tourism industry personnel. Acreage destroyed TMI: 0 (the radioactivity was contained within the walls of Unit 2, unlike Chernobyl); DH: How Big is the Gulf of Mexico anyway?

Sure, there have been a few protests against BP, like in Pensacola, Florida, but nothing on the scale of what occurred in 1979. Where is the clamor for change in the oil industry? Where are the furious politicians and the sanctimonious starlets to demand the dismantling of Big Oil? Why, in the face of millions of dead fish and animals, are the oil companies still allowed to drill exploratory wells in excess of a mile below the surface?
We have been inundated with coverage from the Gulf and from hurting families due to lost businesses and quality of life, yet no one is motivated to action. Why is there such a hugely different reaction to disasters caused by the nuclear industry and those caused by oil even when the human and environmental toll is much worse for oil disasters? Do the psychological costs of a nuclear disaster weigh upon us more heavily than the physical and enduring costs of oil?

The reaction to Deepwater Horizon, by the way, is not old news. The other environmental catastrophe in the summer of 1979? The Ixtoc I oil spill, where for ten months straight 30,000 barrels of oil a day gushed out of a faulty blow-out preventer, deep underwater in the Gulf of Mexico.