FirstEnergy Co. has applied for a 20-year extension of the operating licenses for the two aging nuclear reactors near Shippingport in Beaver County that sit some 25 miles west of Pittsburgh. The current license for Beaver Valley Unit I is due to expire in 2016 and the license for Unit II expires in 2027.
There is overwhelming evidence that they represent a significant threat to human health, not only from accidents or terrorist activity but also from the radioactive releases of everyday operations. Cancer rates near Shippingport and in the counties close to the many nuclear reactors near Philadelphia are the highest in Pennsylvania.
A realistic alternative is to convert these nuclear power plants to natural gas. This could save most of the investment and jobs at the facilities while protecting the health of the Pennsylvanians who live nearby and generating needed electricity.
The dangers of nuclear reactors from accidents and terrorism are well known. The radioactivity in the reactor cores and waste-storage pools equals that of hundreds of Hiroshima bombs. A meltdown from mechanical or human error or a terrorist attack could be catastrophic, killing and poisoning many thousands and making the Pittsburgh region uninhabitable for generations.
But the Shippingport plant doesn't need to suffer a Chernobyl-type accident or a 9/11-style terrorist attack to seriously harm local citizens. Like all nuclear reactors, the Shippingport reactors produce more than 100 radioactive chemicals that are created only by the detonation of nuclear weapons or the operation of nuclear reactors. Some of these chemicals are permitted to be released into the air and water during normal reactor operations -- as long as the doses of radiation are small compared to those from normal background or medical sources which are considered safe.
But what was not fully appreciated when the first nuclear reactors were built in this country was that these chemicals do not do their worst damage by exposing people to radiation in the environment. The big problem is that they enter the human body through breathing and the food chain, especially through fresh milk and other dairy products, concentrating in key organs like the lung, the thyroid, the bone marrow and the female breast. This results in organ radiation doses hundreds to thousands of times greater than that from external sources, leading to large increases in cancer, leukemia and other chronic diseases.
These internal radiation doses are particularly harmful to infants developing in a mother's womb, to children and to older people whose immune defenses against infections and cancer have been weakened by lifelong exposure to radiation.
Thyroid cancer has been widely recognized as being linked to radioactive Iodine-131. Since large nuclear reactors came on line in this country, the incidence of thyroid cancer has risen more rapidly than that of any other cancer. This began in the 1980s, well after the last atmospheric nuclear bomb tests.
The link to reactor releases is most clearly indicated by the fact that among the 67 counties in Pennsylvania, out of 14 with the highest thyroid cancer rates, 13 are located within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant. Moreover, the highest rates of newly reported cases occurred in the eastern part of the state near Philadelphia, where there are 13 reactors located within a radius of 90 miles, the largest number of reactors near any city in the nation. Nine are located in Pennsylvania.
Consistent with this finding, Philadelphia now has the highest rate of total cancer mortality among 60 metropolitan areas in the United States with populations of more than 790,000. It is therefore not surprising that the highest levels of bone-seeking Strontium-90 in baby teeth are found in areas near nuclear reactors, especially in the downwind direction, as reported by the Radiation and Public Health Project (www.radiation.org). As can be seen in the chart of thyroid cancer incidence in a report by Joseph Mangano on the project's Web site, the next most obvious location of abnormally high rates of thyroid cancer in Pennsylvania is found in the western part of the state, within 50 miles of Beaver County and adjacent to Allegheny County.
In 1973, Pittsburgh Mayor Pete Flaherty fought against the issuing of an operating license for the first of the two large Shippingport reactors. Earlier that year the mayor had learned that leukemia and cancer rates had been rising in the area after the construction of a smaller reactor. As a result of public hearings arranged by Gov. Milton Shapp, it became clear that airborne releases from the original small reactor were settling on the vegetation consumed by grazing cows. The pattern of abnormally high radioactivity in the milk and soil, together with an increased incidence of childhood leukemia, confirmed that it was not due to fallout from bomb tests. Unfortunately, the mayor failed in his attempt to stop the licensing.
Since the 1970s, the rate of newly reported cases of thyroid cancer has risen 70 percent in Beaver County, together with lesser increases in the incidence of many other forms of cancer and chronic diseases in Western Pennsylvania. A similar pattern has occurred across the nation after approximately 100 reactors began operation, documented in some 22 scientific papers and five books listed in the Radiation and Public Health Project Web site.
No nation can prosper when the cost of health care saps its resources and harms its physical and mental well-being. In the medium and long term, increased energy efficiency and the development of sustainable alternative energy sources such as wind and solar power will contribute to providing the nation's energy needs while protecting us from global warming.
In the meantime, it is possible to convert nuclear power plants to natural gas. This has been done with the Fort St. Vrain power station near Denver, Colo., which saved most of the facility, along with the jobs, income and tax base of the community. Within two years, infant mortality began to decline, as did childhood cancer within a decade. The same improvement in human health has been seen around a number of nuclear reactors that were closed.
It is time to convert the two aging reactors in Shippingport.
First published on December 16, 2007 at 12:00 am
Ernest J. Sternglass is professor emeritus of radiology
at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine, director of the Radiation
and Public Health Project and the author of Secret Fallout: Low-Level
Radiation from Hiroshima to Three Mile Island.