Nuclear Plant: A New Facility
Would Pose Serious Health Concerns
The Duke Power Co. recently notified federal officials that it will apply to build two new nuclear reactors in South Carolina. The intended site is near Gaffney, where Duke long ago scrapped a similar project. Duke has joined other utilities that want to order the first new U.S. nuclear reactor since 1978.
The possibility of new reactors raises hope for additional electricity for the people of South Carolina. But it also raises health concerns.
The most dramatic of these concerns is a full meltdown, either from a mechanical failure or act of sabotage. Large amounts of deadly radioactive gases and particles would spew from the reactor, moving quickly through the air. A safe evacuation would be impossible, and thousands would become ill or die from radiation poisoning or cancer.
The Chernobyl catastrophe two decades ago is a reminder that a nuclear plant meltdown actually has happened -- a real-life nightmare. But another Chernobyl is not needed for a nuclear reactor to harm local citizens. Reactors release small amounts of radioactivity into the air on a daily basis. This consists of more than 100 chemicals, which are not found in nature but only created in nuclear weapons explosions and nuclear reactors.
The 100-plus chemicals, each of which can cause cancer, enter the human body through breathing, food and water. Each affects the body in a different way. Strontium-90 attaches to bone and teeth. Cesium-137 disperses throughout the soft tissues. Iodine-131 seeks out the thyroid gland. They are especially hazardous to infants and children, whose immune systems are not well developed.
Levels of routine emissions that enter the body are relatively low. While scientists have long debated the risk of low-dose radiation exposure, a growing number of experts agree that there are risks. Doctors no longer give pelvic X-rays to pregnant women, and government scientists have determined that thousands of Americans developed cancer from exposure to atomic bomb test fallout. In 2005, a blue ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences concluded that no safe level of radiation exposure exists.
What would happen to local residents if new reactors were built and operated at Gaffney? Perhaps the best insight into this question comes from the experience with the Catawba nuclear plant just 25 miles east of Gaffney. Two reactors have been operating at Catawba since 1985 and 1986.
York County, where Catawba is located, is relatively similar to the overall United States in many aspects, including income, poverty rate, educational level and racial composition. The county has three hospitals, along with world-class medical care in Charlotte, just half an hour away. Thus, there are no obvious factors that would suggest county residents have a high risk of disease or death.
In 1985-86, as the two Catawba reactors were in the process of starting up, 21 York County babies died in their first month of life. But in the next two years, the number shot up to 41, while the U.S. rate declined. Babies die for a variety of reasons, but because they are most susceptible to radiation's effects, this might have been the first sign that local residents were harmed by Catawba.
Long-term trends in York County also raise questions. In the early and mid-1980s, the county's death rate from cancer was slightly below the U.S. rate. But since Catawba began operating, the county rate is 4.3 percent above that of the nation. This may not seem like much of a difference, but over the past 16 years, 4,398 York County residents have died of cancer, meaning an additional 200 persons beyond the previous rate have succumbed to the disease since Catawba opened.
Rising rates after Catawba opened suggest that radiation exposure may have harmed local residents. But public health departments and nuclear regulators have never explored this potential link, and the Catawba reactors are licensed to operate for another 20 years.
Cherokee County, where the new Gaffney reactors are planned, is not as well off as York County. Its people are poorer and less educated and have less access to medical care. Cherokee's current death rates, from cancer and all other causes, is already one of the highest in the state. Before building new reactors and adding radiation to a population with a high death rate, health risks should first be considered.
Federal approval for new reactors should not be granted until nuclear power is demonstrated to be safe. In the meantime, nontoxic electricity sources such as solar, wind and hydrogen fuel should be developed.
Joseph J. Mangano is national coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a professional research group based in New York.