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The Richmond (VA) Times Dispatch
Guest Editorial, April 16, 2006

Nuclear Plants-A Dangerous Non-Solution To The Energy Crisis
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA

Officials from the nuclear industry and the Bush administration who claim that building new nuclear reactors will help solve the nation’s energy crisis are wrong.

Understanding why they’re wrong is clear after a historical review. In the midst of the Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union, President Eisenhower gave his Atoms for Peace speech to the United Nations, urging that the “peaceful atom” could benefit society in many ways. Congress quickly responded by passing the Atomic Energy Act, and the move to build nuclear power plants was on.

At first, there was a great rush to build reactors. Nuclear generated electricity that was clean and “too cheap to meter” according to Atomic Energy Commission chairman Lewis Strauss would be the solution much of our future energy needs. President Nixon predicted that by the year 2000, there would be 1000 nuclear reactors in the U.S.

It turned out there are only 103, as the last U.S. reactor order occurred in 1978. The surface reason for this demise is that private financiers concluded reactors were a poor investment. But behind Wall Street’s change of heart are three key safety and health issues that had no answers half a century ago, and have no answers now, representing risks that Americans are not willing to take..

1. Assurance that no major accident will occur. From the start, many worried about a disastrous reactor meltdown. No insurer would offer coverage against a catastrophe so enormous, but Congress bailed out the nuclear industry by passing the Price-Anderson Act, which sharply limited liability of utility companies.

Even with Price-Anderson, jitters over an accident continued. The nation flirted with danger in 1979 when over half of the reactor core at Three Mile Island melted. Seven years later, a full meltdown occurred at Chernobyl, sending massive amounts of radioactivity worldwide.

The aging fleet of reactors poses an additional risk of a meltdown. In 1982, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission estimated a 45% chance of a major meltdown occurring over a 20 year period. This hasn’t happened, but with reactor parts aging, and with the threat of a terrorist attack looming, the specter of environmental holocaust continues to hang over the industry.

2. Assurance that routine emissions are harmless. To produce electricity, reactors must routinely release radioactive chemicals into the air and water. Over 100 chemicals in gas or particle form are released, and enter the body through breathing and the food chain. Each is cancer-causing and damages different parts of the body: Strontium-90 attaches to bone and teeth, Iodine-131 seeks out the thyroid gland, and Cesium-137 disperses in the soft tissues.

Government regulators arbitrarily set “permissible” limits of emissions, and without doing the necessary health studies, declared that low doses were harmless. But subsequent research indicates otherwise. One medical journal article showed high levels of childhood cancer near each of 14 nuclear plants in the eastern U.S. Breast cancer rates among women exceed the national average near most U.S. nuclear plants.

3. Long term plan for nuclear waste. Most radioactivity produced by reactors is stored as waste at each nuclear plant. For years, government and industry had no plan for a permanent waste repository, which now amounts to a staggering 77,000 metric tons, or hundreds of Chernobyl accidents. The plan to bury the waste at Yucca Mountain NV has raised many questions about the risks of moving and securing the waste, and now is being held up in a series of legal actions.

With a permanent repository in jeopardy, the nation’s nuclear plants must secure a huge amount of deadly radioactivity. Plants were meant to only temporarily store the waste, which will remain dangerous for thousands of years. Building new reactors will only add to this dilemma.

The North Anna plant near Charlottesville is a microcosm of these three issues. As the plant opened (1979-1982), the cancer death rate exceeded the state rate in just one of ten counties within 30 miles of the plant (population 400,000). Today, (1999-2002), seven of ten counties have higher rates. A total of 915 metric tons of waste is stored at North Anna – a number that will double in 25 years. And while no major meltdown has occurred North Anna’s increasingly brittle parts raise the chances of such an event. Still, Dominion Nuclear has asked the federal government for preliminary approval to build two new reactors at the site.

Nuclear power isn’t safe, and it’s not even renewable. The world supply of uranium used to power nuclear reactors is finite. There is talk of reviving reprocessing of nuclear fuel, a sort of radioactive recycling. But this is an especially dangerous technology that was discarded long ago by the Ford and Carter Administrations.

There are ways to produce electricity, much less dangerous than nuclear power, which can easily replace the 19% of our electricity that nukes now generate. Among these choices are solar and wind power, which pose no health risk and are renewable. The threats of the past half century created by nuclear reactors should be understood, and safer solutions towards ending our energy crisis pursued.

Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research group based in New York.

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