Joseph J. Mangano
Some legislators are making great efforts to change state law, so that nuclear reactors can be built in Utah. They believe that nuclear power is "clean" because it doesn't emit greenhouse gases. But is it clean, or is it a threat to public health?
Utah is no stranger to the health hazards of radiation. Fallout from Nevada atomic bomb tests and occupational exposure from uranium miners, millers, and transporters have affected many. For years, even as evidence grew, officials denied that anyone was harmed. Only in 1990 did the U.S. Congress finally acknowledge these risks, when it enacted a program to compensate bomb test downwinders and uranium workers.
A more recent threat is the plan of nuclear utilities to build a temporary nuclear waste storage facility at the Skull Valley Goshute reservation 45 miles from Salt Lake City. Again, industry and government give assurances that the waste will be safely transferred to and stored at the site. But with massive amounts of waste planned for Skull Valley, a new threat (worse than bomb fallout and uranium mining) would be posed.
Now there is a push for nuclear power reactors to produce electricity to meet the state's growing demand. Although they produce no greenhouse gases, reactors routinely do produce over 100 radioactive chemicals - the same cocktail found in bomb test fallout. These chemicals, which include Cesium-137, Iodine-131, and Strontium-90, all cause cancer. Some decay quickly, while others last for hundreds and thousands of years.
The equivalent of several hundred Hiroshima bombs exists in a typical reactor. A large-scale release from mechanical failure or act of sabotage would be the worst environmental disaster in American history, exposing thousands to radioactivity, causing widespread suffering from acute radiation poisoning and cancer.
But another Chernobyl or 9/11 is not necessary for reactors to cause harm, as they routinely release a small portion of the 100-plus radioactive chemicals into the air and water. These products enter human bodies through breathing and the food chain, and attack healthy cells. They are especially toxic to the fetus, infant, and child.
When reactors were first built, low dose exposures to radioactivity were presumed to be too small to harm humans. But considerable evidence indicates otherwise. Pelvic X-rays to pregnant women were stopped after studies showed a doubling in the risk of the child dying of cancer. A 2005 study by experts at the National Academy of Sciences examined many scientific studies and concluded that there was no safe level of exposure.
Utah is a state with low poverty and unemployment, and high income and educational levels. There is no obvious reason why state disease rates should exceed the U.S. For most types of cancer, rates are in fact lower. But cancer mortality in Utah children is slightly above the national rate - even though the death rate for all other causes is below the U.S. Incidence of thyroid cancer, which is especially sensitive to radioactive iodine in fallout, is 26% above the U.S. Although many factors may account for these types of cancers, none is obvious, and previous exposures to radioactivity must be considered.
The experience of the past half century suggests that caution should be taken before any nuclear reactor operates in Utah. Potential health hazards of nuclear reactors are serious and would persist for generations. Other options for generating electricity that pose no threat to public health, such as solar and wind power, should be taken seriously.
Joseph Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research organization based in New York.
ATTACHMENTS - Sources of Data Used in Editorial
1. Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, enacted on October 5, 1990 (and amended on July 10, 2000), provided compensation to underground uranium miners, mill workers, and transporters in 11 states (including Utah) who suffer from a variety of specified cancers and lung disorders. In addition, compensation became available to residents in affected areas (including several counties in southern Utah) downwind of the Nevada atmospheric nuclear weapons tests from January 1951 to October 1958 and in July 1962. Source: U.S. Department of Justice, Radiation Exposure Compensation Program, Www.usdoj.gov/civil/torts/const/reca/about.htm.
2. Stewart A et al. "A survey of childhood malignancies." British Medical Journal 1958; 1:1495-1508. MacMahon B. "Prenatal x-ray exposure and childhood cancer." Journal of the National Cancer Institute 1962;28:1173-1192. (Medical journal articles on cancer risk to children exposed as fetuses to low dose x-rays to the mother's pelvis).
3. Committee on Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR VII). National Academy of Sciences, June 29, 2005. (Blue ribbon panel that concluded there was no safe threshold dose of radiation exposure).
4. Comparison of selected demographic factors, Utah vs. U.S.
5. Cancer Incidence Rate, Utah vs. U.S.
Utah is one of 17 cities and states making up the "national" cancer incidence data base, known as Surveillance Epidemiology and End Results, run by the U.S. National Cancer Institute (www.seer.cancer.gov, cancer statistics review). The following is a comparison of the state and SEER/US cancer incidence from 2000-2004
6. Mortality in Children Age 0-9, 1979-2004