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The Monroe Louisiana News-Star
op-ed article, August 20, 2006

New Nukes May Mean New Health Risks
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA

(August 20, 2006) The Entergy Corporation has applied for a federal Early Site Permit, which is needed before it can order new nuclear reactors at the Grand Gulf plant in Port Gibson MS, about 60 miles from Monroe. Officials at the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission are expected to decide on the application this fall. A new nuclear reactor order would be the first in the U.S. since 1978.

Entergy claims that new reactors would be safe. But do the facts support this claim? Nuclear reactors typically contain much more radiation than that released at Hiroshima, in the reactor’s core and waste pools. A meltdown from either a mechanical failure or terrorist attack would release enough radiation to injure or kill thousands.

But another Chernobyl or terrorist attack may not be needed to harm local citizens. Nuclear reactors routinely release over 100 radioactive chemicals into the air. These carcinogenic chemicals are produced only in nuclear weapons and reactors. They enter the body through breathing, eating, and drinking, and harm cells. Each has its own biochemical action: Strontium-90 seeks out bones, Iodine-131 attacks the thyroid gland, and Cesium-137 disperses throughout soft tissue. These toxins affect are most harmful to the fetus and infant, whose immune systems are still developing.

Perhaps the best way to explore if routine emissions from new reactors would present a health risk is to review the record of people living near existing ones. A reactor has operated at Grand Gulf since 1982. Within 30 miles of the plant lie Claiborne, Jefferson, and Warren counties in Mississippi, and Madison and Tensas parishes in Louisiana. Over half of local residents are black, and the poverty rate is nearly double the U.S. rate.

The 88,000 residents of this area are most likely to breathe air and drink water made radioactive by Grand Gulf emissions. Drinking water in Port Gibson contains 10 times the radioactivity as that in Jackson, 50 miles away.

In the first two full years that Grand Gulf operated (1983-1984), deaths to local infants before their first birthday jumped from 55 to 69, a 35% rate increase. Stillbirths, or deaths to fetuses, rose from 41 to 60, a 58% rate increase. National rates steadily declined during this time.

Despite the socioeconomic problems in the area, the death rate from all causes in the five counties near Grand Gulf was similar to national rates just before the plant opened, for both whites and blacks. But since then, local rates rose while national rates declined. The current the local death rate is 24% and 14% above the U.S. for whites and blacks, respectively. Nearly 1000 persons die in the region each year, making this excessively high rate a major public health issue – which has yet to be fully explained.

Rising death rates can have many explanations. In an area like that the five counties near Grand Gulf, poverty and lack of access to medical services (among others) must be examined. But it should also be recognized that the five counties became a high-death area only after the reactor started. Thus, radiation exposure should be considered as one potential explanation, and more detailed studies should be pursued. Furthermore, it would be prudent for federal officials to take no action on the permit application for new reactors at Grand Gulf until any health risks were better understood.

The application for new nuclear reactors at Grand Gulf has national implications, as approval might open the door for other new reactor orders. Various utility companies have expressed interest in new orders, and the 2005 energy bill signed by President Bush offers financial incentives for new construction. If new reactors in fact do pose health risks, consideration should be given to developing solar power, wind power, and other non-toxic forms of producing energy.

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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