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Hutner Film ‘Radioactive’ Tells an Important Story

Hutner camera

Documentary on Three Mile Island Shown at Stony Brook Film Festival

Radioactive stage
Heidi Hutner (second from right) discusses her film during the Q&A session following the July 26 showing at the Staller Center. Also shown are (from left): festival coordinator Kent Marks, radiation and health specialist Cindy Folkers, film editor Simeon Hutner and attorney Joanne Doroshow.

On March 28, 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant experienced a meltdown, the most serious accident in the history of the American commercial nuclear power generating industry. The meltdown raised concerns about nuclear safety and regulation and led to catastrophic repercussions in the surrounding communities.

Decades later, the community is still dealing with the consequences.

After being invited to attend a yearly vigil at the plant with a group of concerned mothers and community members, Stony Brook University’s Heidi Hutner felt compelled to tell their story. Hutner — an associate professor of English and Sustainability in the College of Arts and Sciences Department of English, and an affiliate with Women’s and Gender Studies — produced, wrote and directed the multi-award-winning documentary Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island, which was shown at the Stony Brook Film Festival as the feature film on July 26.

“I am thrilled for Radioactive to screen in the prestigious Stony Brook Festival,” Hutner said. “Long Island has a long history of important environmental and antinuclear activism, including being the first to ban DDT and locals prevented the opening of the Shoreham nuclear power plant soon after the Three Mile Island meltdown. Several of our mothers in the film stepped in to help these Long Island activists back in the day.”

The documentary focuses on four concerned mothers directly affected by the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant accident. Also featured are a two-woman legal team who took their battle for the rights of area residents to the Supreme Court, a local doctor who maintains many of her patients may be sick because of the accident, a scientist who has initiated a new study regarding the impact of the meltdown on the health of the community, and a female reporter who remembers the confusing and conflicting information fed to the media.

Residents living in the surrounding area in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, were given mixed messages following the meltdown. Twenty-eight hours after the accident, the Pennsylvania lieutenant governor reported that Metropolitan Edison, the owner of the plant, assured the state that “everything is under control.” Later that same day, the statement was changed, and schools were closed and residents urged to remain indoors. The governor, on the advice of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission chairman Joseph Hendrie, then advised the evacuation of pregnant women and pre-school age children within a five-mile radius of the facility on March 30 at noon, two and a half days following the accident.

Linda Hoagland Braasch, Beth Drazba, Joyce Corradi, and Paula Kinney all lived five miles from the meltdown. The plume settled over their town, circulating the air throughout their homes during the initial 24-hour period. It is now hypothesized that the impact to their immediate neighborhood was like being exposed to 50,000 to 100,000 X-rays. While they sought to find answers to the questions surrounding the resulting health issues for the community, they were told to go home and bake cookies.

“These are not wild activists. These are mothers and they had their eyes open,” Hutner said. “They were audited. They were followed. They had their phones tapped. These moms tell me they didn’t want to fight this battle, but they had to, because the government wasn’t protecting the community or telling the truth. Someone had to protect their children.”

Hutner camera
Heidi Hutner

Hutner noted that when the women spoke at the Nuclear Regulatory Hearings and meetings, “asking intelligent questions about the verity of the nuclear company’s and NRC’s claims, and armed with detailed information regarding their corruption and cover-ups — what really happened  — the women were laughed at, mocked, and told to ‘go home and bake cookies.’ ”

Locals were told that they could not see, feel, or smell radiation, yet many reported a metallic taste in the mouth. One mother stated that her son vomited a strange green color, later confirmed as evidence of radiation poisoning.

Mary Olsen, a biologist and founder and director of the Gender and Radiation Impact Project, is featured in the film and describes the radiation standards in the U.S. from the onset of nuclear technology in 1942, based on a 25 to 30 years-old Caucasian male, known as the ‘Reference Man.’  However, research findings indicate that radiation is 10 times more harmful to young females and 50 percent more harmful to a “comparable female” than it is to the ‘Reference Man’ who is more resistant to radioactivity.

The anecdotal stories in the documentary are from the women of the family members and community members who all suffered from cancer and include information reported from a local veterinarian who was shocked to see so many stillbirths in sheep, goats and pigs and cancer among goats and dogs. Prior to the meltdown, he had never seen such illness and health problems in the local animals.

In 1985, after a long legal battle led by the women in the film, a 4-1 vote by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission allowed TMI-1 to resume operations, despite the outcry of residents.

The United States Nuclear Regulatory Commission stands behind its statement that affirms no impact on health to residents, “This was the most serious accident in U.S. commercial nuclear power plant operating history, although its small radioactive releases had no detectable health effects on plant workers or the public.”

The screening was attended by several SBU faculty and staff, including Christine Veloso, director of Science and Technology Entry Programs (STEP/CSTEP), who brought 38 students to see the film, along with 15 student mentors and teaching assistants.

“The opportunity to expose students to a documentary and accompanying short film like the ones provided by the Stony Brook Film Festival helps to expand our students’ understanding of what is happening in this world and help them see perhaps how they might fit into it or contribute to changing it,” said Veloso. She added that the film included themes that resonated with the students, such as the importance of finding your voice to combat injustice and advocate for what is important to you, the importance of conducting research and educating oneself about the facts, and the discussion of radiation and the human body, especially relevant to students who want to study cancer or become doctors.

Hutner addressed the importance of the film during a time when nuclear power is being considered as an ‘answer’ to the climate crisis. “The film could not come at a more important time for a number of reasons. We believe anyone seeing this film will walk away with the unmistakable conclusion that nuclear power must be off the table,” she said. “TMI is one of a long list of environmental disasters and cover-ups that have caused serious harm to surrounding communities, which will last decades. It was and continues to be the lesson of what happens when a corporation and industry lacking integrity, regulated by an agency completely captured by that industry, is put in charge of people’s lives.”

— Beth Squire


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