Charter Arts students make Fukashima documentary
Forty years ago, on March 28, 1979, there was a partial meltdown of the Unit 2 core at the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor on the Susquehanna River south of Harrisburg. Advances in scientific assessments over the four decades have confirmed that 50 percent of the core had been destroyed, and ionized radiation was released as steam into the atmosphere.
The “but” in this, however, is that experts from the federal government and the nuclear industry have remained steadfast in their assessment that the exposure levels of 100 millirems of radiation from TMI were far below the average annual rate of 620 millirems of radiation that most people are exposed to from x-rays, medical treatments and flying in commercial airplanes.
In the interim, studies to determine a causal relationship between the radiation from TMI and cancers have been inconclusive. A 20-year Penn State study on thyroid cancer published in 2017 concluded that there might be a “possible correlation,” but it stopped short of saying that the accident caused the cancer, saying instead that its findings were “by no means conclusive.”
While the health issues of radiation exposure from TMI have continued to be debated over the past four decades, two more nuclear incidents, Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011, have further contributed to the ongoing public debate on the safety of the nuclear industry.
Contributing to that debate, students in the broadcast production class at the Lehigh Valley Charter HS for the Arts has produced a documentary film, “The Fukushima Legacy,” which explores how the world’s three worst nuclear accidents have been handled, and what are their potentially long-term effects on human health and the environment.
Charter Arts students worked under the direction of faculty member, Damian Righi, but managed all aspects of the production including research, principal photography, narration and post-production. The 45-minute film was screened in advance of the TMI 40th anniversary at the school’s main theater, and is now posted online.
After the screening, Righi and four students who worked on the two-year project and graduated in 2018 answered questions from the audience. Those students were Jessie Ledergerber, Kaitlyn Palfi, Eliana Velez and David Jerry.
Righi explained the origin of the project. “I charged my students with the task to produce a video about an investigative or controversial topic that would broaden their global horizons,” Righi said. “The topic we arrived at was investigating the effects of the 2011 tsunami and corresponding disaster that occurred at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in Japan.”
“The effects of Fukushima were felt around the world and caused us to take a broader look at the nuclear industry and how nuclear incidents have been handled around the world,” Righi added.
After the screening, the students talked about their efforts to avoid bias in covering the nuclear topic. They said they were hindered by their inability to get anyone from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission or Three Mile Island to talk to them. At the time of the accident, TMI and both of its nuclear reactors were owned by GPU Energy. Exelon Generation now owns the plant, but only the TMI-1 reactor that is still operating.
The students said Exelon let them come on site to film, but wouldn’t speak on camera.
Among those interviewed in the film are former nuclear energy executive Arnold “Arnie” Gundersen, mechanical engineer Bill Best and Fedor Alexandrovich, star of the 2015 documentary, “The Russian Woodpecker.” According to a Charter Arts’ release, Alexandrovich, is known for his extensive research on the Chernobyl accident. The film also included extensive interviews throughout with three members of the Three Mile Island Survivors group, who linked cancers and other diseases, including bipolar disorder, to radiation from the accident. When asked why no doctors or scientists were interviewed to address these health issues, the students said they had trouble getting sources to speak on camera.
They added that Bill Best did mention briefly that there might be other causes for the cancers, even though Best didn’t mention in any detail what those specific causes, such as smoking and diet, might be.
Funding for the project was made possible through a grant from the Lehigh Valley Community Foundation.