New Nuclear Reactors Threaten
Our Children's Health
(February 13, 2006) Progress Energy announced late last month that it would seek a federal license to add one or two new nuclear reactors to the Shearon Harris plant. The development has national implications, as the last order for a U.S. nuclear reactor occurred in 1978. Nuclear industry leaders hope that new reactors at Shearon Harris will be followed by more new units at other locations.
Discussion of health risks to local residents posed by new reactors is often restricted to what would happen after a catastrophic accident like the one at Chernobyl two decades ago. But there doesn't have to be another Chernobyl for reactors to emit harmful radiation. Over 100 radioactive chemicals, created only in nuclear reactors and atomic bomb explosions, are released into air and water. Humans breathe, drink, and eat these toxic gases and particles such as Strontium-90, Cesium-137, Iodine-131, and Plutonium-239.
While routine releases from reactors result in relatively small exposures, environmental radiation levels near nuclear reactors like Shearon Harris still exceed those in more distant areas. According to the annual Radiological Environmental Operating Report prepared by Progress Energy, the 2004 average of radioactive chemicals emitting beta particles nearly doubled the average measured in 78 sites around the country. Moreover, a June 2005 report of a blue ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there is no safe dose of radiation.
Since Shearon Harris began operating on January 3, 1987, local radiation levels have sometimes increased unexpectedly. For example, monthly levels of beta chemicals in local drinking water steadily increased beginning in May 2004, until they had nearly doubled by September. Whether or not the mechanical problems that caused the Shearon Harris plant to shut down for two weeks in May was the reason for this increase is not certain; but the absence of any other major local source of beta radioactivity makes emissions from the plant the most likely source.
The critical question - and one that has gone unexamined by Progress Energy and the U.S. government - is whether Shearon Harris emissions have harmed local residents. Any study of health effects should begin with infants and children (who are especially vulnerable to effects of radiation exposure) living downwind of the plant (where most emissions travel). Since prevailing winds in the Triangle generally originate from the southwest, those living north and east of Shearon Harris (Durham and Wake County residents) can be considered "downwinders."
One test of local health effects is whether initial
radioactive emissions from the plant caused harm. The number of Durham
and Wake County infants who died in the first month of life rose from
69 to 97 between 1986 and 1987. The local infant death rate increase of
34% was significantly greater than the 4% national decrease.
Many medical journal articles have examined local childhood cancer rates to assess the risk of living near nuclear plants. In Durham and Wake Counties, the cancer death rate for children under age ten rose 62% from 1979-1987 to 1988-2002, significantly greater than the national decline of 28%. The Durham/Wake rate in the past 15 years is higher than each of the most populated counties in North Carolina. It is also exceeds those of all major American cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, and Houston. This fact is especially disturbing because of the superior medical services available in the Triangle.
What caused these children, a total of 63 in the past
15 years, to die of cancer? While no definite conclusion can be made that
radiation exposure from Shearon Harris contributed to these children's
cancers, the issue merits serious consideration and more thorough research,
especially in a fast-growing area like Raleigh-Durham.
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH MBA,
is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project research
group based in New York. He is the author of 22 medical journal articles
on health risks from nuclear reactor emissions.