Letters To The Editor
Presidential candidate John McCain gave a rousing endorsement to nuclear power during a recent visit to the Fermi plant. But does Fermi really live up to the slogan of “clean and safe” energy?
The Fermi 1 nuclear reactor opened in 1963, to much fanfare. Fermi 1 was not only one of the first U.S. nuclear reactors, but a fast breeder reactor, promoted as an especially effective way to produce power. But three years later the fanfare ended, as a partial meltdown nearly caused a huge release of deadly radiation, moving officials to consider evacuating Detroit. The reactor was soon closed permanently, and no other fast breeder reactors ever operated in the U.S.
The second Fermi nuclear reactor opened in 1985. The startup came at a time when was reactor effectiveness and oversight had improved (according to nuclear advocates) since the 1979 Three Mile Island partial meltdown. But Fermi 2 was on a federal “watch list” in the late 1980s; was closed all of 1994 for mechanical repairs; and suffered “near miss” accidents in 2001 and 2003. It still operates, but its parts are aging and becoming brittle.
A third Fermi nuclear reactor was ordered in 1972 but was cancelled two years later and never opened. So for the past three decades, with no new reactors on the horizon, Fermi and the entire U.S. fleet appeared to be headed for extinction as reactors reached retirement age.
But just as it appeared that nukes would go quietly into the sunset, global warming became a vital public issue. Nuclear utilities, seeing an opportunity, started promoting new reactors as an environmentally benign source of energy. Several dozen new reactors have been proposed – the first since the 1970s - and one of these is the latest version of Fermi 3.
But is the unfolding nuclear revival truly a move towards “clean and safe” electrical power? Reactors do not release greenhouse gases, but they produce 100 chemicals, found only in nuclear weapons and reactors. Each of these chemicals, which include Strontium-90, Cesium-137, and Plutonium-239, is radioactive and causes cancer. They must be stored in constantly-cooled pools of water at reactor sites; loss of cooling water, from mechanical failure or terrorist attack, would cause a catastrophic accident like Chernobyl. Many thousands of Detroit-area residents, not able to evacuate in time, would be sickened with radiation poisoning or cancer.
In addition to the large amounts of waste stored, reactors must release a portion of its radioactivity into the air. The 100-plus chemicals enter human bodies through breathing and the food chain. In Monroe County, the cancer death rate has jumped from 2% above the U.S. in the early 1980s (when no reactors operated) to 10% above the nation in this decade. Cancer mortality in children, who are most susceptible to radiation, soared from 39% below the U.S. to 58% above the U.S.
Monroe County should not have cancer rates above the U.S. Its 155,000 residents have above-average levels of educational, income, and homeownership, and below-average levels of poverty and non-English speakers. Access to world class medical care is available in nearby Detroit. Yet the cancer death rate is high. There may be many potential reasons for this – but emissions from Fermi may be one of them, especially since the gap is growing.
McCain and other supporters of nuclear power should be cautious before pronouncing nuclear reactors – discarded for years as a future energy source – as safe. The best course to meet energy needs while protecting public health would be a program of efficiency, conservation, and truly safe renewable sources like wind, solar, and geothermal power.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education organization based in New York.
Joseph J. Mangano