The time is fast approaching for federal regulators to rule on an application to keep the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor for 20 additional years. Extensive and animated discussion has taken place in the past months, much of it focused on the health and safety risks of keeping the reactor open.
The extended battle is a landmark for the U.S. nuclear industry. To date, utilities have asked for license extensions for 47 of the 104 reactors in this country – with more expected soon. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has approved every one of the 47 applications, mostly with little fanfare – and certainly little examination of health and safety threats. But Vermont Yankee has been different, arousing the interest of many concerned citizens.
The primary argument that Vermont Yankee is not safe is centered on the scenario of a large-scale release of radioactivity. A meltdown could occur from mechanical failure, especially at an aging reactor with corroding parts. While this hasn’t happened at Vermont Yankee, a report released last year identified a “near miss” meltdown situation in 1991, the 24th most serious in the U.S. in the past two decades.
Another way that a meltdown could occur is from an act of sabotage. The nuclear industry have given repeated assurances since the 9/11 terrorist attacks that reactors are secure; but efforts to tighten security suggests a nervousness about potential attacks.
A meltdown would constitute the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history, spreading toxic particles and gases many miles, to be breathed, drank, and eaten by local residents. The suffering would be extensive. A 1982 report to Congress from a federal laboratory estimated that a meltdown at Vermont Yankee would cause 30,000 persons within 15 miles to suffer from radiation poisoning, and 28,000 within 35 miles to die from cancer.
But another Chernobyl or 9/11 situation may not be necessary to affect the health of residents near Vermont Yankee. All reactors routinely emit over 100 radioactive chemicals found only in atomic bombs or nuclear reactors into the air and water. These chemicals enter the body through breathing and the food chain, where they kill and injure cells. Each chemical can cause cancer and is especially harmful to infants and children.
The radioactive cocktail includes Strontium-90, which attaches to bone; Cesium-137, which disperses throughout soft tissues; and Iodine-131, which seeks out the thyroid gland. While levels of these chemicals that enter bodies are relatively low, a blue-ribbon National Academy of Sciences panel concluded in 2005 that there is no safe dose of radiation.
Windham County, where Vermont Yankee is located, has no obvious characteristics that place it at high risk for disease. Compared to other Vermont counties, Windham has about the same proportion of elderly, minorities, foreign born residents, educational level, income, and poverty level. The county has no unusually great concentration of polluting industry. It also has access to world-class medical care in Boston.
But in the past quarter century, Windham death rates for infants, children, and young adults are 13% to 37% above the rest of the state. A total of 244 deaths in county residents under age 35 occurred during this time. Because the youngest are at greatest risk for health problems from radiation exposure, this patterns raises questions.
The county death rate from cancer, for people of all ages, was 5% below the rest of Vermont two decades ago, but now has risen to a level 10% above – even though current death rates in Windham for all other causes are 1% below the rest of the state.
There are many contributing factors that can account for deaths in young people and from cancer. But none are apparent to explain the high rates in Windham County. A thorough investigation of potential reasons should be undertaken by health authorities, and emissions from Vermont Yankee should be one of these.
In the meantime, no rush to judgment should be made on the Vermont Yankee license renewal. Even though the reactor supplies one-third of the state’s electricity, safer sources of electricity like solar and wind power are becoming more readily available. The people of Vermont are entitled to understand the true risks the reactor poses to their health.
Joseph Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and educational organization based in New York.