We Are the Guinea Pigs
Three Mile Island continues

by Doug Eisenstark

from Jump Cut, no. 28, April 1983, pp. 40-41
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1983, 2005

WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS is a recent documentary film directed by Joan Harvey about the nuclear power industry, the nuclear arms race, and specifically about the Three Mile Island accident in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The film opens with the residents of Harrisburg telling about the events surrounding the accident. The film then moves to interviews and statements by nuclear power proponents and antinuclear trade unionists and scientists. As well as discuss nuclear power, these speakers often address the nuclear arms race and its relationship to the government and utility companies. A kind of filmic debate is made possible by intercutting the different interviews with each other. This editing is often quite quick, and the less-than-consistent film quality makes viewing the film somewhat tiring. Interspersed throughout the film is a rock band, Fourth Wall Repertory, whose antinuclear lyrics presumably reflect the filmmaker's own views.

WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS begins with the subjective accounts of Harrisburg residents. These testimonies tell of radiation sickness, plant and animal life dying, and of mutations and deformities occurring in livestock after the near meltdown of the Metropolitan Edison power plant. Many of the interviews are with young parents, often times shown holding their children. They tell of the illnesses their kids have suffered and the hopelessness they feel when faced with the mass of contradictory information they have been given. A local pediatrician expresses how difficult it is to tell parents that their children are contaminated with radiation at a dangerously high level.

The most articulate speaker in the first section of the film is a ten-year old boy who grimly gives the facts of his illness at the time of the accident. He makes comparisons to the official estimates of what a "safe" illness is. The government says he "safely" could have been sick with radioactive iodine for an hour, but he remembers his symptoms lasting for over eight hours. He looks in the direction of the power plant and says that he is worried. The danger to children, who are more vulnerable to radiation than adults, is not only one of dying during an accident or in their lifetimes by the effects of cancer. It is also a danger of irreversible chromosomal damage that may adversely affect their children, grandchildren, and succeeding generations. Children then are the most innocent victims of the dangers of the nuclear industry. As one parent says in the film about her preteen daughter, "How do you tell her she can't have kids because of Three Mile Island?"

The extent of the accident at Three Mile Island has been consistently covered up from the first day of the accident. WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS tells us that the accident was made known to the public on that day only because an amateur radio operator happened to be monitoring communications from workers within the plant. WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS takes on the utility company experts. By intercutting their statements with those of antinuclear activists, it shows that the Pennsylvania region and the rest of the world was and continues to be dosed with radiation from Three Mile Island. The film tells us that the power plant is neither in cold shutdown nor in a dormant state. It continues to emit radiation to this day.

At one point in the film Dr. Helen Caldicott responds to a statement by a utility spokesperson concerning the amount of radiation released during the accident. She says that if this radioactive chemical were released in the amounts mentioned, it would be enough to poison half of the United States population lethally. Even now the plant must often release radiation and eventually rid itself of a million gallons of radioactive water. When gases are intentionally leaked, it is often done secretively at night or in the rain. This is done so that the radiation will not be detected in the atmosphere but instead fall quickly and heavily on the area surrounding Harrisburg. The danger from Three Mile Island continues. Its contents will be lethal to life forms for half a million years. Because another accident at another power plant is almost certain, the film rightfully argues that it is imperative to close all nuclear facilities immediately and begin to systematically decommission them before more radioactive wastes are produced.

Halfway into the film a woman steelworker appears briefly in what appears to be the middle of a lucid and militant talk about profits, nuclear power, and, explicitly named, capitalism. Her statements are cut at this point, and John Goffman picks up the theme of profits but not capitalism. Although the steelworker appears again briefly, her rap has been quickly diverted to what sounds like a consumer's dissatisfaction with one particular product, nuclear power. The film talks vaguely about profits and "bringing control back to the people." It begins but does not follow through on an anti-capitalist analysis that would place the nuclear industry in economic and ideological terms and would explain its sudden rise and relative "success." In this way the film cannot address the existing and future strategies needed to combat the current disastrous situation.

WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS is an important film that gives scientific but not necessarily political fuel to the antinuclear movement. The film is clearly an antinuclear propaganda, informational, and agitational vehicle. Yet its usefulness to activists and to those as yet unconvinced remains questionable. The film fails to find a core to build its argument from. Massive amounts of scientific evidence are presented as well as emotional first-hand testimony, economic analysis, and, for the musically inclined, a rock and roll band. One feels that the film attempts a comprehensive look at the nuclear industry by showing something of everything. In a sense, this scattershot approach is the result of the many-faceted antinuclear movement, which is made up of those doing scientific research, community and labor organizing, and civil disobedience, forming a loose political base. With its resources and access to these groups, WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS could have attempted to tie some of these elements together in a cohesive manner. Instead the film puts forward a liberal politics and a manic intensity, as if we were discovering the dangers of nuclear power for the first time. This is unnecessary as activists know most of the background information. For those who are undecided about the issues, too much is presented too fast for particular facts to be retained. Unfortunately, the ninety-minute film does little to convince us that documentaries don't have to be boring and tedious. WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS can be seen as a complementary film to the Green Mountain Post films, LOVEJOY'S NUCLEAR WAR and THE LAST RESORT (JUMP CUT, No. 12/13 and No. 24/25), which present antinuclear activism within a limited political context.

If WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS has an overview, it is that of the Fourth Wall rock band, which moves politics into a poetic rage. The band is shown at what appears to be a number of rallies and benefits. I say “appears to be" because these rallies are rarely pictured. This is also true when Michio Kaku, John Goffman, Helen Caldicott, or physicist Daniel Pesello are shown interviewed in the midst of a rally or seen addressing an invisible crowd. The failure of the camera to turn on its axis and show the political organizations necessary to combat the nuclear industry is to implicitly undercut the activist groups’ importance. In this way the film has placed itself outside of the organizations. WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS seems to want to totalize the issues in a way that must ignore political organizations, which necessarily must be specific in their analysis and objectives in order to be effective. Perhaps if the film had attempted to integrate the antinuclear movement within the film, the audience could be given some sense of organizational strength rather than once again having many experts paraded before us to decide our fate.

The antinuclear movement has been progressing politically to address the issues of imperialism (concerning itself, for example, with uranium mining in South Africa and on Native American land in the United States) and workers' safety and jobs both in nuclear plants and in the mines. The United Mine Workers sponsored a demonstration in Harrisburg mourning the second anniversary of the Three Mile Island accident. The dominant chant of the marchers that day was "No Nukes, No Wars, U.S. out of El Salvador!" Labor groups have in the past and are continuing to organize around nuclear issues. WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS interviews many labor leaders, which is in itself a reflection of the antinuclear movement's conscious attempts to reach beyond a middle-class constituency. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, itself has a very strong antinuclear community. Its effects are undoubtedly seen in the film as the filmmakers interview a well-informed population.

“When a ten-year-old kid can talk about the potential effects of radioactive iodine on his body you know he didn't learn about it from Metropolitan Edison.”

There are over seventy nuclear plants in the United States alone. The nuclear industry and the government have been pushing nuclear plants abroad as a way to stabilize the sagging industry here. In the 1950s the electric industries were unwilling to invest in nuclear technologies but were essentially bribed by the government, which needed nuclear plants to produce nuclear arms. The various companies which build and maintain nuclear plants can turn a profit only because of heavy government subsidies and protective legislation such as the Price-Anderson Act, which makes atomic plants virtually exempt from liability for damages. Each of these power plants must eventually be dismantled. They become so completely and thoroughly radioactive that they are unserviceable. WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS does little more than make these and other facts known. The means to a world free from the nuclear nightmare remain unexplored. Despite its complex form, WE ARE THE GUINEA PIGS turns out to have nothing more to say than a simple slogan, but the message is both clear and powerful: Stop nuclear power and stop nuclear armaments!


Since the writing of this article in the summer of 1981 some developments have led to different directions in the antinuclear struggle.

The first is that for the United States and most of Europe the construction of power plants per se has been effectively killed by the antinuclear movement and the incompetence of the energy industry itself. While isolated plants are continuing to be considered, the grand plan for nuclear energy as a major power source is over. Instead, within the United States and Europe the nuclear czars are trying to export their plants to Third World countries. West Germany, for example, is supplying Brazil with many new plants despite protests in both countries.

In the summer of 1982 worldwide attention was given to the United Nation's Second Special Session on Disarmament. Called by a majority of Third World countries, it was the catalyst to involve Third World people around the world in the disarmament struggle. With this, the antinuclear movement broke out of its single-issue politics. Voices in the United States came from solidarity movements concerned with Vieques (Puerto Rico), Latin America, and Africa. SSD II itself saw a disaster within the UN due to U.S. blocking, but large rallies on June 12 allowed many groups to speak out against the U.S. export of nuclear and conventional arms.

Particular attention must be given to the struggle of Native Americans in North America, as uranium deposits have been found in the Southwest on Native American lands. Native Americans will be forced to leave these lands for the uranium that will be destined for nuclear bombs in Reagan's domestic military buildup or export to foreign dictatorships for nuclear power plants.