Just 15 miles from Keene, the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor has been churning out electrical power since 1972. But the reactor is getting old; it license expires in just over four years. Entergy Nuclear of Jackson Mississippi has asked federal regulators to grant a 20-year license extension for Vermont Yankee, and a decision is expected soon.
Entergy claims that Vermont Yankee is a vital part of the area’s energy mix, and that it produces “clean” electricity, as it emits no greenhouse gases. But the reactor is one of the smallest and oldest in the U.S., and is anything but clean. While greenhouse gases may harm the environment, radioactivity from nuclear reactors also poses a health threat.
Our society is no stranger to the nuclear menace. Half a century ago, hundreds of atomic bomb explosions in Nevada and the south Pacific spread fallout across the nation. Concerns that humans were being harmed moved President John F. Kennedy to sign the Partial Test Ban Treaty, ending all atomic tests above the ground.
Nuclear reactors actually produce the same mix of over 100 radioactive chemicals found in bomb fallout. Some of these decay quickly, while others remain for hundreds and thousands of years. Each causes cancer, and is most toxic to the fetus, infant, and child. A typical reactor such as Vermont Yankee contains the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshima bombs in its core and waste pools.
If radioactivity at Vermont Yankee is not constantly cooled with water, a meltdown would occur. Winds would spread these gases and particles across the region, and they would enter human bodies before evacuation were possible. Many thousands would suffer and die from acute radiation poisoning or cancer.
But another catastrophe like Chernobyl or a 9/11 attack may not be necessary for Vermont Yankee to harm people. All nuclear reactors must routinely emit the cocktail of 100-plus chemicals into local air and water. Humans ingest them through breathing and the food chain. Data reported by nuclear companies to the federal government indicate that Vermont Yankee releases are higher than most of the 104 U.S. reactors. For example, 2002 airborne releases of Strontium-89 (which causes bone cancer and leukemia) and Iodine-131 (which causes thyroid cancer) were the 9th and 13th highest in the U.S.
The question of whether these chemicals have harmed people has been consistently ignored or denied by both Entergy and the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. But it is critical to examine the Vermont Yankee health “report card” before it is allowed to operate for 20 more years.
Only one federal study of cancer near U.S. nuclear plants has been done, at Senator Edward Kennedy’s insistence. The 1990 study showed that cancer deaths in the three counties closest to Vermont Yankee (Windham VT, Cheshire NH, and Franklin MA) rose after the reactor started for seven types of cancer, and declined only for two types.
The severity of the cancer issue in New Hampshire may be surprising. A traditionally non-industrial state, with low levels of poverty and unemployment and access to top medical care in nearby Boston should have low rates of cancer. But in the 1980s and 1990s, the state death rate was 9th highest for cancer, but only 33rd highest for all other causes. Mortality for many types of cancer rank high, including common ones:
There are many potential causes of cancer, but in New Hampshire, a state that is flanked by the Vermont Yankee reactor on its west and the Seabrook reactor on its east, radiation exposure should be considered one. This should be an issue of concern to health officials and energy officials alike.
In late 1991, there were nine nuclear reactors operating in New England. Since then, four have closed permanently, leaving the region with only five. But the lights haven’t gone out, and bills haven’t risen any more than elsewhere in the U.S. And losing one more (small) reactor wouldn’t change the situation.
Closer examination suggests that Vermont Yankee hasn’t lived up to its “clean” billing. Between a potential meltdown and routine contamination, keeping it in operation may be more trouble than it’s worth. Instead of relying on an aging and corroding reactor, a plan focused on safe and renewable energy sources should be pursued.
Joseph Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and educational organization based in New York. He can be reached at email@example.com or www.radiation.org.