Letters To The Editor
Concern about global warming has kick-started a search for ways to replace coal as a source of electricity. One potential option is nuclear reactors, the second most common source of power in America (behind coal). The 104 U.S. reactors produce 19 percent of the nation's electricity.
No reactors have ever operated in West Virginia. But recently, state legislators have proposed dropping a 1996 ban against building new reactors. Supporters say that since reactors don't release greenhouse gases, they represent a "clean" energy source.
But nuclear reactors are not "clean" at all. They generate enormous amounts of more than 100 radioactive chemicals. These include Cesium-137, Iodine-131, Strontium-90, and Plutonium-239 - the same chemicals produced when American and Soviet atomic bombs were exploded in the air half a century ago.
These chemicals, which are gases and metal particles, all cause cancer. They are especially toxic to the fetus, infant and child. Some of these chemicals decay and disappear quickly, but others remain radioactive for hundreds and thousands of years.
Most of these chemicals are stored as nuclear waste at nuclear plants. For years, government officials have promised that the waste will eventually be shipped to a permanent repository in the Nevada desert. But that proposal ran into strong opposition, and is stopped. Operating a nuclear reactor in West Virginia would likely mean the state would be stuck with the waste permanently.
After several years of operation, a reactor accumulates the equivalent of several Chernobyls and hundreds of Hiroshima bombs. The waste is stored in deep pools of water that must be constantly cooled. Any "meltdown" - a loss of cooling water, from mechanical failure or terrorist attack, would release this huge amount of radioactivity into the air. Winds would carry it long distances, and safe evacuation would be impossible. Thousands would breathe toxic materials and suffer from radiation poisoning or cancer.
Although most radioactivity is stored as waste, some must be routinely released into the air. These chemicals enter human bodies through breathing and the food chain. They attack cells and cause cancer, especially in the young. Medical journal articles have consistently shown high rates of childhood leukemia near reactors.
Even without nuclear reactors, West Virginia has a serious cancer problem. Each year more than 10,000 state residents are diagnosed with the disease, and nearly 5,000 die. Except for Kentucky, West Virginia has the highest cancer death rate of any U.S. state. Rates of cancer in the lung, larynx, colon, rectum, ovary and cervix are among the highest in the nation. Creating a new cancer risk would make a bad situation worse.
Nuclear power is not the only alternative to coal. West Virginia is a state blessed with considerable wind, which can be used to make electricity. Wind is truly clean, and it lasts forever. Other renewable sources, such as solar and geothermal, also are non-polluting and not a threat to public health.
West Virginia's leaders should be cautious before going ahead with any plans for new nuclear reactors. The state's energy future should feature conservation, more efficient products, and safe renewable forms of energy to protect its people.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.