Women of Three Mile Island tell their story

Documentary tells the silenced story of the women who lived through the nuclear accident

The following is excerpted from Heidi Hutner’s website — Accidents Can Happen.

After her mother’s death, Professor Heidi Hutner discovered an unknown chapter in her mother’s life, something that seemed contrary to the woman she thought she knew. Hutner’s mother had been part of Women Strike for Peace. This group’s efforts actually led to the ratification of the Limited Test Ban Treaty – and the end of atmospheric bomb testing by the U.S., U.S.S.R, and U.K. in 1963.

As an eco-feminist professor of sustainability studies, Hutner wondered why had she never heard this story. What other significant women’s nuclear tales had been buried? And at what cost? Hutner felt driven to find out.

At Three Mile Island, almost forty years after the disaster of March 28th, 1979, Hutner stumbles upon Linda, Joyce, Beth, Paula — ordinary housewives who lived five miles from the nuclear plant at the time of the meltdown. The women “knew nothing about nuclear power,” they told Hutner. They “trusted” the power plant owners and their government “to protect” them.

Paula could see the towers from her kitchen window. She was setting her neighbor’s hair at her dining room table when she heard the news about the meltdown on TV. Joyce was tending to her young children and a group of toddlers in her home daycare. All the mothers called their husbands, grabbed their kids, jumped in their cars, and fled.

What the people of Three Mile Island didn’t know: the meltdown had begun two days earlier in the wee hours of the morning, while the community slept. It was too late.

Citizens experienced the symptoms of radiation poisoning: hair loss, burning skin, a metallic taste in their mouths, vomiting. Animals developed cancer and had stillbirths in higher-than-normal numbers. Plants grew deformities. Authorities said all this was in the peoples’ “imaginations.”


Heidi Hutner, far right, talks with the women who comprise Mothers and Concerned Citizens. (Photo: Martijn Hart)

Paula, Beth, Linda, and Joyce formed Mothers and Concerned Citizens and gathered evidence to prove that the accident at Three Mile Island meltdown was far more harmful and dangerous than indicated by the government.

Now, forty years later, it turns out the mothers were right: studies show much higher levels of radiation were released from the accident than officially disclosed, and the community has very high rates of cancer. These politically-awakened mothers continue to ask hard questions about what really happened.

The story of the women of Three Mile Island also draws upon key aspects of women and nuclear history and present, through interwoven interviews with Dr. Helen Caldicott (physician and leading spokesperson on nuclear safety), Beatrice Fihn (Nobel Peace Prize Winner for the U.N. Treaty to Abolish Nuclear Weapons), Aileen Mioko Smith (Fukushima), Senator Maria Chappelle (St. Louis), and Kathy Jiltnil-Kejiner (Marshall Islands), among others.

Heidi filming

Hutner filming near Three Mile Island. (Photo: Martijn Hart)

The documentary is based on a book-in-progress by Heidi Hutner. The production team includes Director, Writer, Producer Professor Heidi Hutner; Director and Director of Photography Martijn Hart; Associate Producer Freke Vuijst; and Associate Producer Suzanne Kay.

Heidi Hutner describes in more detail how the project came about.

“In the summer of 2017, Martijn Hart and I met.  In our first conversation, I told him about the book I was/am writing, “Accidents can happen: voices of women and nuclear disasters.” Each chapter in my book deals with a different nuclear disaster — Three Mile Island, Fukushima, the Rocky Flats weapons factory, and so on. Each disaster story is told through the eyes of a woman or a few women — up close and personal.

Martijn, a Dutch cameraman and DP immediately said: “You need to make a movie about this.”

I thought he was crazy, but….maybe he was right?

An idea was hatched….

Months later, we began shooting at Three Mile Island (the plan is for this to be our first episode — like my book, we will cover various disaster stories/locations).

There, we met Linda, Joyce, Paula, Beth, as well as Maria and Gene.

It was three-thirty a.m., March 28th, at the hour and day of the meltdown that happened in 1979. These folks make this vigil every year. Trains roared by as the victims huddled in a prayer circle and shared their tales.

I huddled with them. Martijn filmed.

I was shocked at what I heard. Tears ran down my face.

As Paula says, “Nobody cared about us. Not the power plant owners, not the government.”

Soon after the accident, because it was clear to the mothers that “the officials were either lying or they had no idea what they were doing, or both,” they joined forces to form Mothers and Concerned Citizens. These apolitical homemakers, suddenly became ‘awakened’ social, political and environmental change makers.

TMI view

The campaigning mothers soon realized the aftermath of the TMI disaster was far worse than authorities ever admitted. (Photo: Martijn Hart)

“We are mothers and now grandmothers, trying to protect our kids,” they all say.

Many of their family members are now sick with cancer (children and grandchildren as well), and their local community is riddled with cancer and neurological and other diseases. The mothers believe that proper studies were never done by the authorities in the community to look at the effect of the radiation exposures.

New studies show higher-than-normal rates of cancer among the local residents. Radiation releases from the accident were higher than initially reported.

Today, the mothers are still at work. Unit 1 at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant remains in operation, and massive amounts of radioactive waste is stored onsite. The radioactive waste at nuclear power plants stays highly dangerous for thousands of years.

Women have been the peacemakers and leaders in opposition to nuclear power and weapons since the 1950s — yet their views are rarely taken into account in public policy and nuclear strategy. Women and children are also the most vulnerable to radiation exposures.

It’s time for change. The voices of women must be heard. ”

Headline photo by Martijn Hart.

For more information and to support the film, please visit the Accidents Can Happen website.

One Comment on “Women of Three Mile Island tell their story

  1. Pingback: Women of Three Mile Island tell their story — Beyond Nuclear International « nuclear-news

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