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‘Radioactive’ reveals a chillingly toxic truth

“Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island” (2022 production, 2024 release). Cast: Linda Braasch, Joyce Corradi, Beth Drazba, Paula Kinney, Heidi Hutner, Jane Fonda, Joanne Doroshow, Lynn Bernabei, Michèle LeFever Quinn. Archive Footage: David Brinkley, Dan Rather, Jim Lehrer, Jack Lemmon, Michael Douglas. Director: Heidi Hutner. Screenplay: Heidi Hutner. Web site. Trailer.

An old expression maintains “Don’t believe everything you read in the newspapers.” It’s an adage that seems to have taken on increasing relevancy these days, too. But there was a time not all that long ago when many in the public were willing to accept without question whatever information was reported in the media. Fortunately, there were those who were astute enough to recognize when things didn’t add up and were willing to raise their voices in protest. Granted, those courageous individuals may have been in the minority at the time, and they may have had to wait quite a while before their viewpoints were vindicated. But, as time has shown, they were right to speak up and make others aware of what they knew, as seen in the compelling new documentary, “Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island.”

At 4:00 am on March 28, 1979, an incident occurred at the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, PA. A mechanical failure led to a partial meltdown of the facility’s Unit 2 reactor and the release of radioactive gases and radioactive iodine into the surrounding environment through a stuck-open relief valve. However, in the interest of calming public fears and preventing widespread panic, the utility company that operated the plant, Metropolitan Edison, and government agencies issued reassuring messages through the media contending there was no reason for alarm.

If only that had been true.

Before long, local residents began getting sick – really sick in many cases. Various forms of cancer began appearing in growing numbers. And, in other instances, especially among youngsters, victims began evidencing symptoms consistent with radiation poisoning. Suddenly, those official statements that there was nothing wrong turned suspect, especially among those who ended up caring for their sick loved ones – the women of the area.

The four activists who led the charge against officialdom in the wake of the nation’s worst nuclear accident (from left, Joyce Corradi, Paula Kinney, Beth Drazba and Linda Braasch) walk in the shadow of the site that prompted them to fight for the truth, as seen in the compelling new documentary, “Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island,” now available for streaming online. Photo courtesy of First Run Features.

When Harrisburg’s mothers began comparing notes, they began to see troubling patterns emerging, particularly among those who lived in the paths of the released radioactivity. The 2½-mile-wide recommended evacuation zone, for example, seemed insufficient when effects of the released radioactivity began to extend beyond that range. They started organizing, mounting a campaign to push officials to come clean about what really happened. Leading the effort were four determined women – Linda Braasch, Joyce Corradi, Beth Drazba and Paula Kinney – particularly when they saw friends, neighbors and family members falling ill. The prevalence of these conditions was simply too great to be mere coincidence, despite the repeated public reassurances.

The women took on corporate and government officials to get answers, but they were often stonewalled or dismissed. In fact, just by virtue of being women, their claims weren’t taken seriously, becoming targets of blatant gender discrimination, a practice that went much more unchecked in the 1970s than today. They were condescendingly encouraged to go back home and bake cookies like good little housewives. And, in something of an ironic twist of fate, they did just that, returning to their kitchens to prepare those confectionary creations – but as a means to fuel fundraisers to ramp up their legal efforts for challenging members of officialdom. Indeed, deliberate, overt acts of sarcasm can have quite an impact in raising awareness.

Despite the monolithic nature of the official party line, some members of the media were skeptical when they began to see how some aspects of the story didn’t tally, lending some much-needed credence to the claims of skeptics. Such was the case with newcomer reporter Michèle LeFever Quinn, who was covering the story for WKBO radio. She initially believed the official story that the issue was sufficiently contained. But, two days later, when information about the accident began emerging in greater detail, she saw that the magnitude of the incident was far greater than almost anyone was officially admitting. And, 45 years later, that point is driven home by the fact that LeFever Quinn is the only surviving member of her reporting team from that time.

In another poignantly timed development, the four women activists got an unexpectedly fortuitous boost for their efforts from Hollywood. Approximately two weeks before the incident, one of the movie industry’s biggest and most critically acclaimed films of 1979 opened in wide release – “The China Syndrome,” a taut drama about an unsafe nuclear power plant on the verge of melting down starring Jane Fonda, Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas. The irony of life imitating art here was not lost on a significant segment of those who had their doubts about the official story of Three Mile Island. And, given that the picture’s cast featured such a notable, outspoken cast member as Fonda, the truth-seeking advocates had a ready-made ally willing to back them in their efforts, both locally and on a national scale, when it came to calling out the inherent dangers of nuclear power. This represented a powerful clarion call that was signaled first artistically and subsequently, and tragically, in real life.

Reporter Michèle LeFever Quinn, who covered the Three Mile Island nuclear power incident at the time of its occurrence, had a quick change of heart about the official story when she saw the magnitude of the accident, a story related in writer-director Heidi Hutner’s compelling new documentary, “Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island,” now available for streaming. Photo courtesy of Three Mile Productions.

As time passed, the stakes were continually raised in this standoff between the activists and officialdom. Braasch, Corradi, Drazba, Kinney and their followers engaged the support of lawyers like Joanne Doroshow to press their case in court. Even though Doroshow was new to the legal profession at that time, that relative lack of experience didn’t stop her from pursuing this cause, one that eventually made it to the Supreme Court. And, even though the sought-after legal outcomes didn’t live up to hoped-for expectations (primarily due to a lack of definitive measurable evidence to support the plaintiffs’ contentions), these initiatives helped raise new awareness about the potential perils of nuclear power. This new skepticism for the technology’s innate shortcomings helped to reshape the industry’s future, leading to the scrapping of plans for many new power plants that were on the drawing boards at the time. This development may not have made up for the losses of Three Mile Island, but it probably helped lessen the prospects of future disasters. And who said there wasn’t any benefit to come out of baking cookies?

Given the circumstances of this situation, it may initially come across like the classic David and Goliath scenario. At first glance, the notion of four everyday housewives with limited resources taking on clout-laden corporate and government giants may seem like a hopeless cause, one surely destined to fail. But those who are overconfident of certain victory should not be so quick to judge, as their opponents might have more fight in them than they’re aware of.

So what’s the factor working in the underdogs’ favor here? It’s their faith and conviction in their beliefs. As the Three Mile Island story unfolded, they began to see that their suspicions were correct. And their belief in this outlook was enough to sustain them as they carried forward with their cause. While their efforts didn’t yield all of the outcomes they hoped for, they nevertheless made a significant mark through their efforts. Their staunchly held beliefs provided the impetus for this, as they’re the foundation of the conscious creation process, the philosophy that maintains these intangible resources are responsible for the manifestation of the existence we experience. It’s not clear whether any of these activists were aware of this school of thought when they carried out their mission, but, considering the impact they had, it’s obvious they recognized its underlying principles and how to make use of them in tackling their quest.

A variety of beliefs played into the materialization of the results they achieved. For starters, given the magnitude of the incident and its implications, the women and members of the community at large had nothing to lose by taking on this challenge. Their lives and those of countless others in the Harrisburg area were at stake, so nothing was to be gained by staying silent and holding back. Granted they faced an uphill battle by speaking up, but wasn’t making the effort to do something a better option than simply capitulating to those responsible for these conditions? That belief in itself provided a powerful basis for moving ahead.

Even though the four women had never tackled anything like this before, that didn’t mean they couldn’t learn how. This inexperience did not hold them back. And, when they needed guidance and support, they sought it out from knowledgeable sources, seeking the necessary help, courting allies and effectively getting the word out. In turn, the newfound friends they made during this process led to even greater backing for their cause, enabling them to draw upon the power of collaboration and co-creation to drive matters forward. By winning over additional believers, they strengthened their initiatives to get them noticed, including by those who would have rather simply ignored them.

Actress Jane Fonda, who starred in the ironically timed theatrical release “The China Syndrome,” discusses her involvement in speaking out against the nuclear power industry in the wake of the Three Mile Island disaster, as seen in the engaging new documentary, “Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island,” now available for streaming. Photo courtesy of Three Mile Productions.

In undertaking this effort, the activists also got creative in the steps they took, eliminating limitations and thinking outside the box. This is perhaps best exemplified by their cookie-baking efforts. Not only did this venture help to raise funds for their work, but it also drew attention to the inappropriate, condescending responses they received when they raised their voices. Sometimes a little retributive sarcasm can go a long way in making a point, putting some well-earned shame back on those who made these uncalled-for statements in the first place. As many saw at the time, this kind of in-your-face response can indeed have quite an impact.

The kitchen initiative was also important in other ways. Like the women’s overall effort to take on the powers-that-be, this gesture made a powerful feminist statement as well. At a time when this movement was gaining strength, the activists took a longstanding stereotypical “women’s activity” and turned it on its ear, an act of defiance that not only challenged increasingly outmoded notions, but also helped to bankroll a larger, more meaningful cause, the kind that women previously typically hadn’t taken on. Talk about smart cookies.

The women didn’t leave anything on the table, either. Drawing upon the impact of the fortuitously timed release of “The China Syndrome” provided them with another weapon in their publicity arsenal. And believing in the value of winning over a high-profile, highly vocal ally like Jane Fonda certainly helped, too.

This combination of beliefs, followed up by appropriate actions in line with these notions, helped to make the case for the activists and their cause. Admittedly, their efforts and the truths they sought to expose may not have received the attention and media coverage they deserved at the time. But, as evidenced by what happened to the future of the nuclear industry in the ensuing years, their work clearly had meaningful influence. And, thanks to this film, those diligent efforts have finally surfaced, providing them with their just due at last.

As the film indicates, the work involving the long-term effects of the Three Mile Island incident continues, even 45 years afterward. However, that’s understandable given how long radiation lingers after the fact. Everything of significance of a nuclear nature may not yet have emerged, even after all this time. If you doubt that, consider a line from “The China Syndrome,” when a nuclear expert observes (quite ironically in hindsight) that a full-scale meltdown at the power plant featured in the film could “render an area the size of Pennsylvania permanently uninhabitable, not to mention the cancer that would show up later.” The importance of vigilance, even now, remains clear.

Though inexperienced at the time, lawyer Joanne Doroshow nevertheless led the charge of activists all the way to the Supreme Court in challenging the official story circulated about the nation’s worst nuclear accident as seen in “Radioactive: The Women of Three Mile Island.” Photo courtesy of Three Mile Productions.

Given the blatantly self-serving attempts at spin, unrepentant obfuscation and outright lying that we see so much of these days coming from officialdom, big business and the media, it’s no wonder that so many of us have become fed up with such brazenly untruthful tactics. And it’s not just activists and advocates saying this – it’s a growing sentiment from everyday citizens who’ve tired of the practice of unbridled deliberate deception. Such actions may have been harder to spot years ago, but, when life-threatening circumstances are on the line, it’s inspiring to see how quickly and fervently riled-up individuals can get. That was the case with what happened in the wake of the 1979 Three Mile Island nuclear accident, when it became obvious that falsely reassuring messages about the allegedly trivial nature of the incident began to become apparent to the Pennsylvania locals who resided in the danger zone and suffered the consequences that came from it. A groundswell of protests spearheaded by four courageous women and their ardent attorneys emerged, even if those efforts did not receive much fanfare at the time.

However, this debut documentary feature from writer-director Heidi Hutner, a professor of sustainability studies at Stony Brook University, effectively changes all that by bringing the stories of these determined advocates to light – as well as making known just how serious this downplayed incident really was. Through a series of interviews with the movement’s principals, as well as a wealth of archive footage from the time, audiences witness what these individuals went through personally and as leaders of a campaign where they met pervasive resistance, condescending gender discrimination and ongoing intimidation from corporate and government sources. This offering also features first-time interviews with an insider/whistleblower who worked at the plant and with actress/social activist Jane Fonda. Hutner’s release, which has now become available for streaming, on home media and at special screenings, presents a powerful, damning indictment of how ineptly this incident was handled and a heroic profile of the outspoken champions who were willing to go all-out, despite the obstacles, to make their case known. Even if they didn’t garner the attention they deserved at the time, this film helps to make up for that, shining a bright light on the reckless carelessness of those willing to place their own interests ahead of the welfare of innocent victims – and how those victims fought back to make their voices heard about it.

In this day and age, nothing is to be gained by staying silent any more. Even if vocal critics must struggle to be heard, speaking up is still worth the effort, especially when high-stakes ramifications and consequences are involved. The women in this film may not be household names, but the example they set – both in the past and in their continuing efforts these days – are certainly notable and praiseworthy. They should inspire us all to expose the toxic truths out there before they turn toxic on us.

Copyright © 2024, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.

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