Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island (First Run Features, NR)

I’m not sure where I stand on the debates about nuclear power, because when you consider the risks (including death) of other forms of power generation, it’s not necessarily the worst option. But there’s one thing I am sure of: when something goes wrong, as was the case with the partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station on March 28, 1979,  the interest groups promoting nuclear power (which include the nuclear power industry, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and other public authorities) will speak in lies and partial truths and straight-up nonsense that would put Joseph Goebbels to shame.

Given a track record of lies and coverups and disinformation, why would we trust anyone involved with the industry? And given the repeated history of accidents at nuclear power plants, with investigations after the fact typically revealing causes that could have been anticipated and corrected (like poor design in the case of the Three Mile Island plant), why would we trust that a plant will ever be built that will operate safely in the real world when operated by real people? Such are the conclusions you may well reach after viewing Heidi Hutner’s documentary  Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island.

Hutner’s film offers an alternative history of the meltdown at Three Mile Island, with a focus not on the cause of the accident or the official reports on what happened (although they are quoted from time to time) but the effects on the people who lived nearby. It’s a smart choice since the causes of the accident have been analyzed and discussed to death in many other sources and the official reports are also available to anyone who wants to read them.

Radioactive begins on March 28, 2018, with a small group of people just outside the plant entrance meeting to commemorate the accident, something they’ve done for 38 years. Hutner is there, invited to join them based on her writings about women and nuclear disasters. Four women—Beth Drazba, Linda Braasch, Paula Kinney, and Joyce Corradi—form a core group of individuals sharing their experiences with the filmmaker, who then expands her focus to include more voices and other materials, including archival clips of news coverage (mostly bland authority figures assuring us everything is fine) and quotes from official documents.

While Radioactive is definitely an issues documentary with a point of view, the technical level is far above average, making it an enjoyable watch as well as a good source of information. The cinematography by Sandra Bellingham, Valentina Caniglia, Roger Grange, and Martijn Hart is particularly good—seeing someone hanging laundry while the cooling towers loom in the background creates an impression that words can never do—and editing by Simeon Hutner expertly combines a disparate set of materials into a coherent whole.

Even if you know the basic outlines of what happened at Three Mile Island, you’re likely to learn a few things from this film. Some are regrettable but not surprising, like the harm from dosing levels of radiation being calculated for a “reference man” defined as a white male aged 25-30, while the actual impact on a woman or a child are much higher. Also not surprising: after the plant reopened, whistleblowers working in the plant were regularly harassed and intimidated (one of them appears in this film, in shadow and in an undisclosed location). More surprising: there was a cheating scandal regarding the licensing exam for nuclear power plant operators, to the point that those working at Three Mile Island had to go through the process again. Unqualified people operating a nuclear power plant coupled with profit-focused management who doesn’t want to hear about problems—what could possibly go wrong? The real wonder may be that there was only one catastrophe.

A lot of details are presented in Radioactive, but the big picture remains clear. However theoretically safe nuclear power plants can be, the first interest of private companies is profit, and safety costs money. The government agencies that are supposed to protect people are frequently more interested in protecting industry, and the public processes that are supposed to let ordinary people have their say can also be manipulated into ineffectiveness. In such cases, the only option may be the court of public opinion, where the women of Three Mile Island won a victory: they couldn’t keep the plant from reopening (it has since closed, due to lack of profitability rather than safety concerns), but the publicity around the disaster led to a general questioning of the safety of nuclear power which contributed to many proposed plants not being built. | Sarah Boslaugh

Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island is distributed on DVD by First Run Features and is  available for streaming on Apple+ and Amazon Prime Video beginning March 12, 2024.

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