The recent restart of the Browns Ferry 1 nuclear reactor
after 22 years of sitting idle has been scrutinized for its $1.8 billion
renovation cost. But public health is also an issue raised by restart.
Jackson, Madison, Marshall, and Morgan counties, with a population of 550,000, lie east/downwind within 50 miles of the plant. They have been subjected to radioactivity for three decades (Browns Ferry has two other reactors). Its age mix, poverty rate, and educational level are similar to the U.S., and it has 10 hospitals with specialized care nearby in Birmingham. Thus, there is no obvious local health risk, and death rates should not be elevated.
Just after Browns Ferry began operating, the local cancer death rate was 5% below the U.S., but is now 8% higher. With over 1100 persons in the four counties dying of cancer each year, this change equals hundreds of “excess” deaths – with no apparent reason to explain the shift from a low-cancer to a high-cancer area.
The restart of Browns Ferry 1 should be a wake up call to study health risks of nuclear power more thoroughly. If rising local cancer rates are due partly to radiation exposure, it may be best to turn to safe power sources such as solar and wind, which can meet the growing electricity needs of northern Alabama in a more environmentally friendly way.
Joseph Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research group based in New York
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is the Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research group based in New York.
Four Alabama counties lie downwind (east) and within 50 miles of the Browns Ferry plant, and thus are likely to be exposed to the highest levels of emissions from the three reactors. The largest city is Huntsville, in Madison County. These counties, have an estimated 2005 estimated population of 551,186, more than double the 1960 population of 262,501. They include:
The area is similar to the U.S. in a variety of demographic indicators:
3. Cancer Death Rates.
The age-adjusted cancer death rate for the four-county area rose during the past quarter century by 5.1%, compared to a 7.1% decline nationwide. The local rate jumped from 4.6% below the U.S. to 7.9% above the U.S.