New Nuke Plants Hazardous To
The Amarillo Power Company is considering building two new nuclear reactors in the city. The company joins other utilities jockeying to be the first to order a new U.S. reactor since 1978. New nukes in Amarillo would benefit the community by providing electricity and jobs. But they would also pose health risks to local citizens.
Since the first nuclear reactors were built over 50 years ago, the specter of a meltdown from mechanical failure has worried many. The concern became a reality in 1979 at Three Mile Island, and an even worse reality in 1986 at Chernobyl, where thousands suffered from acute radiation sickness and cancer after ingesting deadly particles and gases. The human health toll of Chernobyl will take years to fully understand.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks added a new threat of a reactor meltdown. Even if a reactor was running with no mechanical breakdowns, an act of sabotage could also produce a catastrophe, with casualties far greater than those at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Fast-moving radioactivity from a meltdown would prevent Amarillo from being evacuated safely.
But another Chernobyl or 9/11 attack isn’t necessary for reactors to harm local citizens. Every day, reactors routinely release into the air over 100 radioactive chemicals, only created when nuclear weapons explode or when reactors operate. Humans ingest them through breathing and the food chain. After entering human bodies, they attack cells and cause cancer. Strontium-90 seeks out bone and teeth. Iodine-131 attaches to the thyroid gland. Cesium-137 disperses throughout the soft tissues. These chemicals are especially toxic to infants and children.
One can only speculate what would happen to the health of local citizens exposed to radiation from new reactors in Amarillo. But it is possible to examine what happened in communities that now have nukes. One such area is Matagorda County, the site of the two South Texas Project reactors. Since the late 1980s, when the reactors began operating, the county’s cancer death rate has moved from 11% below to 14% above the U.S. rate. Two additional nuclear reactors are also being considered in Matagorda.
Potter County, with a growing population of 120,000 is already a community at risk for health problems. The county’s poverty rate is well above the Texas standard. The local percent of adults who are college educated is low, and the unemployment rate is high. These statistics suggest that many local residents may not have access to needed medical services.
Perhaps the best way of judging a community’s health is to look at its young people. Potter County fares poorly compared to the state of Texas in all measures of infant and child health, in the most recent period (1995-2002), including:
Long term health trends in Potter County are also not positive ones. In the 1980s, its cancer death rate was 3% above the state, but in the 1990s and 2000s, the rate has been 13% above Texas. The death rate from all causes since 1990 is 25% above the state, one of the highest of all 254 Texas counties.
Operating new nuclear reactors in Amarillo may put an already-suffering population at even greater health risk. It would be prudent to instead expand wind, solar, and hydrogen fuel power instead, to satisfy energy needs while also protecting public health.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research group based in New York.