The Springfield (Missouri) News Leader
The Ameren Corporation recently announced it was considering building a new nuclear reactor, next to its existing reactor at the Callaway plant, between Fulton and Jefferson City. The new reactor would generate 1600 megawatts of electricity, much greater than any of the 104 U.S. reactors now in use. Like other utilities trying to revive the nuclear industry, which has been dormant for decades, Ameren’s rationale is that Missouri’s growing energy needs can best be met by nuclear power, which will not add to greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.
But the absence of greenhouse gas emissions doesn’t mean that nuclear energy is clean. Reactors create huge amounts of radioactivity in their cores, some of which is stored as waste at the plant. The radioactivity at a typical plant is equal to hundreds of Hiroshima bombs, and lasts for thousands of years. Building another reactor would double the amount of radioactivity, and double the health risk from a large release of radioactivity.
A meltdown from mechanical failure or act of sabotage would be the worst environmental disaster in U.S. history. Thousands would be stricken with acute radiation poisoning or cancer, and a substantial area near the plant would no longer be livable. A meltdown may not be inevitable, but it certainly is possible. A report last year cited two “near miss” situations in the past 20 years in which the current reactor at Callaway could have experienced a large-scale accident.
But it doesn’t necessarily take another Chernobyl or 9/11 attack at a nuclear plant to harm the local population. Nuclear reactors routinely emit some of radioactivity directly into the air and water. It enters the body through breathing and the food chain, where it attacks healthy cells. Radioactivity is especially harmful to the fetus, infant, and child.
There are over 100 chemicals not found in nature, but produced only in atomic bomb explosions and nuclear reactor operations. Each affects the body in a different way. Strontium-90 attaches to bone and penetrates into the bone marrow. Iodine-131 seeks out the thyroid gland. Cesium-137 disperses throughout the soft tissues. Some decay quickly, while others remain in the body for years.
Virtually all 85,000 residents of Callaway, Gasconade, Montgomery, and Osage Counties live within 20 miles of the Callaway plant. In the early 1980s, the local cancer death rate was 15% below the U.S. rate. But it has risen steadily since, and now is 8% above the U.S. The increase has been most rapid for children and young adults (up 50%), who are more likely to suffer the effects of radiation exposure.
These patterns are unusual in an area with no obvious cancer risk. While many factors can contribute to local cancer risk, radioactive emissions should be considered one of them. The decision to build a new reactor should wait until a full examination of potential health hazards can be made. Until then, a safer and more prudent approach to the growing electricity needs would be through more efficient products and safe, renewable sources such as solar and wind power.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a non-profit health research group based in New York.
1. The greatest capacity of any current U.S. reactor is 1251 megawatts, for both the South Texas Project 1 and 2 reactors in Palacios TX. Only 33 of 104 reactors have a capacity above 1100 megawatts. Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, www.nrc.gov.
2. The current Callaway reactor, with 1115 megawatts of capacity, was ordered on July 16, 1973, achieved initial criticality (began producing radioactivity) on October 2, 1984, and went commercial (achieved full power) on December 19, 1984. Source: U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, www.nrc.gov.
3. A full meltdown to the reactor core at Callaway would result in 32,000 cases and 11,500 deaths from acute radiation poisoning, respectively, within 17.5 miles of the reactor, and 9,600 deaths from cancer within 35 miles. Source: Sandia National Laboratories. Calculation of Reactor Accident Consequences (CRAC-2). Presented to Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, U.S. Congress, November 1, 1982.
4. Near miss nuclear accidents at Callaway occurred on October 17, 1992 (loss of main control room annunciators) and December 3, 2001 (concurrent unavailability of safety systems). Source: An American Chernobyl: Nuclear “Near Misses” at U.S. Reactors Since 1986. Washington DC: Greenpeace USA.
5. Population (2006 estimated), Four Counties within 20 miles of Callaway Plant
6. Cancer Mortality Rate
7. Cancer Mortality Rate, Four Counties Closest to Callaway
Plant vs. U.S.