Daily Egyptian

SIU history professor publishes book on nuclear meltdown

Natasha Zaretsky poses for a portrait with her book,

Natasha Zaretsky poses for a portrait with her book, "Radiation Nation," on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in her Faner office. (Anna Spoerre | @annaspoerre) The book, focused on the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, was published this year.

Anna Spoerre

Anna Spoerre

Natasha Zaretsky poses for a portrait with her book, "Radiation Nation," on Tuesday, Feb. 6, 2018, in her Faner office. (Anna Spoerre | @annaspoerre) The book, focused on the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, was published this year.

By Kitt Fresa, Staff Writer

Associate History professor Natasha Zaretsky, has just published her new book, Radiation Nation which covers the worst nuclear reactor accident in U.S. history; the meltdown at Three Mile Island.

Radiation Nation is about the 1979 nuclear accident at Three Mile Island, but Zaretsky takes the accident in a way that most other scholars haven’t. Looking at what the accident meant in the lives of the people who actually lived around the reactor.

On the day of the accident the containment building overheated which subsequently caused radiation to be emitted into the environment around the plant. For several days, the plant was unstable.


“The people who lived near the plant had to try and figure out on the basis of not a lot of information whether or not they should evacuate.” Zaretsky said.

Many civilians did end up leaving the area due to an advisory issued by the governor of Pennsylvania at the time. Richard Thorburn suggested all pregnant women and children under the age of 5 who lived in a 5 mile radius of the reactor evacuate.

One of the topics that Zaretsky covers in her book takes place after the meltdown. The state did a number of studies that found the radiation released at the time of the accident had never been above a certain threshold.

This threshold indicated that no epidemiological or biological consequences could have occurred, essentially stating that no one had suffered any radiological injuries.

What Zaretsky found was actually that a lot of the people who lived near the plant did not believe the official story about the accident. They were convinced that they had sustained radiological injuries.

Associate Anthropology professor Roberto Barrios commented on how disasters like the one at Three Mile Island don’t just disappear for those who are affected.

Barrios said when a technological disaster is declared to have ended, it doesn’t mean that that disaster is over for those who were affected.

“The disaster can be a process that expands for them into the future,” Barrios said. “It becomes apart of their everyday life.” 

Another topic Zaretsky discusses is how even though the accident happened in a predominantly white conservative christian area, after the accident women rose up and became very active in the community.

Zaretsky’s reasoning for this was that radiation can cause fetal injury.

“A lot of women especially pregnant women and women with young children became really involved after the accident in trying to figure out what had happened because they were worried about their children’s health and their reproductive health,” Zaretsky said.

This coincides with a message Zaretsky really tries to talk about in the book. That a conservative region relied on tactics and images that came out of the protest culture of the left of the 1960’s. And by the late 1970’s these tactics were making their way into more conservative rural communities.

The cover of the book is a picture of a mother and child in front and between two nuclear cooling towers. Zarestky said she found the image very evocative.

“It got me thinking about where gender fits in to ideas about energy and ecology. It got me asking if issues about gender played an outsized role in this accident and in fact of the course of my research I discovered that it really did. That women were kind of in the center of the story,” Zaretsky said.

Staff writer Kitt Fresa can be reached at [email protected] 

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1 Comment

One Response to “SIU history professor publishes book on nuclear meltdown”

  1. Victor White on February 8th, 2018 10:51 pm

    Great story and a great book by Dr. Zaretsky. There are two factual errors with the reporting in this article however:

    1. Radioactive gas was intentionally vented by nuclear operators after the meltdown in order to relieve pressure on the core to prevent catastrophic radioactive gas release. The meltdown itself did not cause the release of radioactive gas to the environment.
    2. No one was somatically or genetically injured by the core meltdown or by the intentional radioactive gas release, because environmental threshold levels were never exceeded.

    The greatest damage was psychological in nature. People’s belief in the omnipotent beneficence of our government and “”exotic technology” began to fail. The people living near the reactor responded appropriately with the minimal information they had.

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