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Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA

Letters To The Editor
Louisville Courier-Journal
Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The Kentucky legislature is considering a proposal to overturn a 1984 ban on building nuclear reactors in the state. Supporters see nuclear power as an important way to reduce dependency on coal for electricity, without adding to the global warming problem. But a coal-for-nukes swap may represent nothing more than replacing one environmental hazard with another.

One problem with nuclear reactors is what to do with the high level waste they produce. This waste is actually a cocktail of chemicals such as Cesium-137, Iodine-129, Strontium-90, and Plutonium-239, each radioactive and cancer-causing. Waste decays slowly remaining in dangerous amounts for thousands of years, and must be kept from escaping into the air, water, and food.

Kentucky banned nuclear plants because the government had yet to find a permanent waste repository. A quarter century later, there still is no permanent repository. The choice of Yucca Mountain, Nevada has run into snags based on safety concerns, and would open in 2018 at the very earliest, perhaps never. A Kentucky nuclear plant would likely be saddled with large amounts of waste indefinitely.

Another potential health problem is a large-scale release of radioactivity from a meltdown. Accidents have occurred at several reactors, including the 1986 total meltdown at Chernobyl and the 1979 partial meltdown at Three Mile Island. But in addition to accidents, a terrorist attack could also cause a meltdown. Safe evacuation would be impossible, and local residents would be exposed to toxic radiation, causing many thousands to suffer from radiation poisoning and cancer.

Even if a disastrous meltdown never occurred, a small portion of radioactivity must be released from reactors. This radioactivity enters the human body through breathing and the food chain, as gases and tiny metal particles. They kill and injure healthy cells, leading to cancer, and are especially harmful to the fetus, infant, and child.

Although it has never had a nuclear power reactor, Kentucky is no newcomer to nuclear plants. The Paducah Gaseous Diffusion Plant has been enriching uranium for nuclear weapons and reactors since 1952, and contaminating the local environment for decades. Interestingly, two sponsors of the legislation to repeal the ban on reactors include Sen. Bob Leeper and Rep. Steven Rudy. Both represent the Paducah district, and should be well aware of threats posed by nuclear plants.

Local residents have breathed, drank, or eaten these contaminants, and may have suffered. In the past quarter century, the death rate in the four closest counties (Ballard and McCracken in Kentucky, Massac and Pulaski in Illinois) is about 9% above the U.S. for both whites and blacks. This amounts to nearly 3,000 “excess” deaths in a population of only 95,000. The four counties have no obvious health risk, like language barriers, lack of education, or extreme poverty, so Paducah must be considered as a potential factor in these high rates.

Kentucky already has the highest cancer death rate of any state in the nation. There is no need to increase cancer risk by introducing a hazardous means of producing electricity. Replacing coal to limit global warming should not be based on another toxic product. Instead, it should feature conservation, more efficient products, and safe renewable forms of energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal power to protect public health.

Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.

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