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Resolve health issues before building more nuke reactors
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA

Guest Columnist
Scranton Times Tribune
Tuesday, December 3, 2008

Last month, PPL Corp. sent a letter to federal regulators, stating it planned to build a new nuclear reactor at Bell Bend, just a few miles from the Susquehanna plant where two reactors now operate. The new reactor would be the largest in the U.S., at 1600 megawatts electrical.

The new unit would begin operating in 2018 at the earliest, and its cost would be a staggering $15 billion, an amount that PPL could not cover without taxpayer assistance. This fall, PPL also applied for federal loan guarantees — even though the national “pot” is barely enough to cover the cost of a single reactor like Bell Bend.

As businessmen jockey over the financial future of the new reactor, the issue of public health risk has been largely overlooked. Even though the reactor would not emit greenhouse gases like a coal plant, is it safe? A logical way to answer the question would be to examine whether or not local rates of radiation-related cancer have risen since the two Susquehanna reactors started in the early 1980s.

Radiation exposure raises risk of all types of cancer, but some cancers are more strongly linked than others. In particular, the only known cause of thyroid cancer is exposure to radiation, according to many scientific studies. Radioactive iodine, one of the many chemicals produced only in atomic bombs and nuclear reactors, seeks out the thyroid, a butterfly-shaped gland in the neck, where it kills and injures cells, leading to cancer.

The local area east (downwind) of Susquehanna covers six counties in Pennsylvania and one in New Jersey, with 1.35 million residents. Official health statistics show an alarmingly high local rate of thyroid cancer. In 1999-2004, the seven-county rate was nearly double, or 95.2 percent greater, than the U.S. rate. The local rate of thyroid cancer is the highest of any metropolitan area in the nation, an astounding three to four times higher than in other parts of the nation.

No matter how the numbers are analyzed, local thyroid cancer is high. It’s high for men and women, for young, middle age, and old, year after year. No other cancer has such a high rate in the region. Thyroid cancer isn’t a rarity, as more than 200 local residents receive diagnosis each year. The area has a below-average poverty rate and has good access to medical care both locally and in Philadelphia and New York, so there is no obvious reason accounting for this pattern.

It’s certainly possible that radioactive iodine released from the Susquehanna reactors in the past quarter-century has harmed local residents. Even though we can’t be sure about this, there are precedent studies. Perhaps the most important one was done by a decade ago. After years of denial by government officials that atomic bomb test fallout had harmed humans, the National Cancer Institute and Institute of Medicine estimated that exposure to iodine in fallout caused as many as 212,000 Americans to develop cancer.

Orders for new nuclear reactors stopped in the U.S. in 1978 because of concerns over health and cost. Recently, utilities like PPL have made plans to start ordering reactors again, and 31 (including Bell Bend) have been proposed. Supporters of nuclear power often state that nuclear power is “clean” but in Northeast Pennsylvania, this should be given a long, hard look.

There should be no rush to build an expensive and quite possibly harmful nuclear reactor, until all health issues are studied and the public is informed of any risk. If local residents are already suffering, there is no need to add to their burden. The more prudent move would be to hold off on new nukes, and instead develop safe forms of electricity such as solar and wind power.

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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