On Friday, February 3, Frances Skolnick received a phone call from a reporter; he was in search of a comment on the decision of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board to allow the evaporation of 2.3 million gallons of radioactive water from the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant. It was a rather disturbing way to find out that the battle Skolnick has waged on behalf of central Pennsylvania's citizens for many long months (see "In the Valley of the Shadow," March 1989) had just taken a decisively negative turn. Skolnick didn't hear officially of the decision until the following Monday.
The water is the byproduct of the nation's worst commercial nuclear power accident, composed of both spillage from the disaster and water used subsequently in cleanup operations. For 10 years it has sat in storage tanks on the island, waiting for the nuclear industry and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and its licensing board to decide its fate. The highly radioactive and contaminated water presented a decade-long dilemma that wouldn't go away; but, if the nuclear industry has its way, the problem is about to evaporate into thin air.
Despite nuclear industry assurances to the contrary, many people in the area surrounding Three Mile Island are convinced that the plan to evaporate the water and release the radioactive gas into the air poses an unnecessary exposure to low-level radiation and a danger to their safety and health. The release of highly toxic, radioactive tritium is of particular concern.
The water is viewed by residents around TMI as the most visible symbol in a fight in which victories on their side are rare. According to Frances Skolnick, the state of Pennsylvania recently agreed to be a depository for low-level radioactive waste from three neighboring states. But written into the agreement is a prohibition against liquid waste, which poses particular difficulties for disposal.