Three Mile Island, Thunderstorms, and Two-headed Cows

We’re beginning to worry about Uncle Tyler Dyer.  It’s been almost a month since a tornado descended from an eastbound cloud that first passed by Three Mile Island, and from him we’ve heard not a word about it.  And the rainfall totals during the past year, well above normal and record setting, but not a peep from him about it.  The floods too, and the gusty thunderstorms that either seemed to strike only our town, or would instead let us high and dry while passing off to the north or south.  For forty years, from Uncle Ty’s point of view, these phenomena were all attributable to those towers down at Three Mile Island.  He would say, “Man, you know the lightning in that thunderstorm was terrible because of T.M.I.  You know that, don’t you?”

If you happen to live in the lower Susquehanna valley, you’ve probably heard comments like that at the local diner, taproom, or gathering of family and friends.  Many are offered by good-humored folk, in jest, to enliven the conversation.  It makes a chat about the weather a bit more exciting.  Then to, there are those who became extraordinarily suspicious of the nuclear facility at Three Mile Island after the accident.  To them, any deviation from the status quo must be caused by those big towers down there.  Even if they don’t fully believe what they’re saying, it matters that they don’t miss the chance to get in a jab, even if it’s a glancing one.  That’s Uncle Ty.  He sees that plant in a different light than we do, from a different perspective.  To him, Three Mile Island is the ultimate symbol of corporate evil.  It’s not about the fuel used to operate the reactor.  The invisible threat of radioactivity is a metaphor for the secretive operations of sinister big business.  Those towers are a collection of monoliths representing greed, interlocking corporate directorships, and immunity from accountability.  And no one is going to change his mind.

Everyone has their own perception of Three Mile Island.

If you remember reading, watching, or listening to news reports in the weeks and months following the accident at Three Mile Island, you recall stories from farmers and other residents living in the vicinity of the plant who described diverse irregularities in the health of domestic animals and in populations of wildlife there.  For some, these reports left a lasting impression of conditions near the site of the accident.

The Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Nuclear Regulator Commission conducted an investigation into these reports.  Because the levels of radiation released during the accident were barely above background levels, it was going to be difficult to detect any changes in animals or plants that could be definitively linked to operations at Three Mile Island or the accident there.

Upon evaluating cases for which sufficient data had been preserved or animals were available for examination, investigators failed to find any animal deaths, injuries, diseases, deformities, or stillborn young caused by known effects of ionizing radiation exposure.  Anemic conditions would have been expected in animals exposed to significant doses of radiation, but cases of anemia were not found.  For the animal fatalities reported, their numbers generally fell within the expected mortality rates for breeding, raising, and keeping the species involved.  For the cases examined, no link could be made to exposure to ionizing radiation or byproducts released during the operation of T.M.I. or the accident at Unit 2.  Instead of a pattern of mortality and illness consistent with ionizing radiation exposure, investigators instead found a wide-variety of problems considered common to animal keeping.

During the investigation, some of the causes for domestic animal afflictions were identified and, when possible, proper remedies were recommended.  Animal husbandry errors, accidents, and disease accounted for most of the deaths, disabilities, and reproduction failures in domestic animals.  The occurrence of stillborn or deformed pets was attributed to a variety of diseases and developmental problems that are frequently associated with the symptoms described by pet owners.  Poultry eggs that failed to hatch were believed to be infertile or were not maintained at the proper temperature during incubation.  Many of the physical ailments in adult dairy cows were traced to mineral deficiencies in the feed.  Cases of rickets were found among steers at two different farms.  Supplements mitigated these abnormalities in the involved herds.  Some cows were found to be suffering from bacterial or viral infections.  A few dairy animals had developed mastitis, an inflammation often caused by bacterial infection of the udders.  Following diagnosis, herdsmen were able to initiate treatment.  Among livestock, fertility and reproductive deficiencies were generally traced to nutritional shortcomings or disease.  Those farmers needing further help troubleshooting breeding difficulties were referred to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture’s Diagnostic Lab.

The majority of people not living in the lower Susquehanna valley at the time paid little attention to the results of the investigations.  Such reports are often lengthy and boring, not as exciting as the stories of mutants and catastrophe, and not as memorable.  Naturally, the closer you lived to T.M.I., the more informed you probably were about it; you knew first-hand how life was both before and after the accident.  Those living elsewhere were sometimes left with exaggerated recollections based upon those initial news stories from the scene.

While traveling some years ago, Uncle Ty was astounded by the perception folks from outside Pennsylvania had of the place he calls home.  He told us of one incident in particular.  Uncle Ty had gone to the South Bronx in New York City to participate in an “End the Violence” protest.  Gunfire and murder were an occurrence of epidemic proportions on street corners there at the time.  It turned out that the protest was a poorly attended flop.  It happened to be Bat Day at Yankee Stadium, so everyone had gone there instead.  During his extended lunch break, Uncle Ty struck up a conversation with a local, a likeable public safety worker who lived and worked in the South Bronx.  Ty expressed some sympathy for the stressful conditions the fellow had to endure as a resident there.  The guy appreciated his sentiments, but didn’t think he had it too tough.  When Ty told him that his home was near Three Mile Island, the guy shook his head in pity and said, “yeah, I hear it’s pretty bad out there, all the two-headed cows walkin’ around and s…”.  A guy from one of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the country felt really sorry for him.  Even Uncle Ty was caught off guard by that one, but it wasn’t the last time he heard it either.

Today, Uncle Ty has us all pondering.  Has he given up on Three Mile Island’s grand towers as the primary factor affecting all meteorological irregularities in the lower Susquehanna?  Will we ever hear of a cooling tower induced drought again?  What will he turn to?  It’ll have to be something big.  A causative force that no one can quite prove or disprove, mysterious enough to keep everyone guessing if he really knows something no one else knows.  I wonder what it’ll be.  No matter what it is, it just won’t be the same as hearing, “Man, don’t you know?  T.M.I. did it.”

This two-head calf specimen from the lower Susquehanna valley has been in the natural history collection at the North Museum, Lancaster, PA, since long before the construction of Three Mile Island’s nuclear generating facility and reactors began.


Gears, G. E., G. Laroche, et al.  (1980)  Investigations of Reported Plant and Animal Health Effects in the Three Mile Island Area.  U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.  Las Vegas, NV.

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