New South Texas Reactors: Build
And Risks Will Come
Last month, the NRG Energy company notified federal officials of their intention to build and operate two new nuclear reactors at the South Texas Project site in Bay City. The action by NRG, based in Princeton NJ, has national implications, as utility companies move closer to the first new order of a nuclear reactor in the U.S. since 1978.
NRG gave several reasons supporting the move to expand nuclear power in Texas, such as meeting a growing demand for energy and the high cost of other sources such as natural gas. But the most important issue, safety and human health, was ignored.
Perhaps the best-known health threat that nuclear reactors pose to humans is the worst-case scenario of a meltdown. A reactor core and waste pools store massive amounts of highly toxic radioactivity. Any accident or act of sabotage can release these chemicals into the air, and cause large casualties. Reactors around the world have experienced accidents, with the 1986 Chernobyl being the most catastrophic.
But another Chernobyl isn’t necessary for reactors to harm humans. Every day, reactors release a small portion of the radioactivity it produces into the atmosphere. This radioactivity takes the form of over 100 chemicals that are breathed and consumed in food and water by humans. These chemicals harm the body in varying ways. Strontium-90 attaches to bone and teeth, Cesium-137 distributes in soft tissues, and Iodine-131 seeks out the thyroid gland.
Each of these chemicals injures and destroys cells once inside the body. All cause cancer, particularly in infants and children, who are most susceptible to radiation’s toxic effects.
The issue of whether new reactors will affect persons living near South Texas Project is better understood by examining the record of the two reactors now operating there. These reactors started up in 1988 and 1989, and are the largest of the 103 reactors in the U.S. They now produce about 5% of the electricity in Texas.
South Texas Project is located in the center of Matagorda County, which has had a population of about 38,000 for the past quarter century. All county residents live within 15 miles of the plant. The county is very similar to the state of Texas in a number of ways. It has roughly the same age, race, and gender distribution, and about the same poverty, educational, and homeownership levels.
In the years 1986-1989, just as South Texas Project was starting operations, death rates for infants and children in Matagorda County were well below state rates. But in the next four years, as the reactors began emitting radioactivity into the environment, the infant and child death rates rose 60% and 33%, respectively, while state rates declined. Today, county rates remain higher than state rates.
The death rate for all cancers combined in Matagorda County was 5% below Texas in 1986-1989. But the rate is now 16% higher than Texas, as is the county incidence rate. Each year, about 200 county residents are diagnosed with cancer, and about 90 die of the disease.
Changes in death rates for infants and children, and in overall cancer rates, may be affected by many reasons. However, none are apparent to explain the decline in Matagorda’s health record. The county has two hospitals, and is just 90 miles from Houston, where world-class specialty care is available. It does not have overwhelming numbers of poor or uneducated persons. The fact remains that a county with below-average death rates turned into one with above-average death rates after South Texas began operating.
The only federal study of cancer near U.S. nuclear plants was conducted by the National Cancer Institute. But because the study took place in the late 1980s, reactors like South Texas Project were omitted, as no cancer data after the plant opened were available. Thus, health risk in the South Texas Project area remains unexamined.
Because an environmental health risk like radiation is often complex to understand, precaution must be exercised. More study should be given to understanding the decline in Matagorda County’s disease rates – especially before the proposal to expand the plant goes into effect. The public must be fully informed of any risks to their health from the basic functions such as breathing air, drinking water, and eating food. Until this risk is known, non-toxic forms of electricity should be pursued.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research group based in New York.