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Salem Nukes Pose Risk for Cumberland Co
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA

Cumberland County (NJ) Reminder
Wednesday, September 16, 2009

It's now official: operators of the three nuclear reactors in Salem County have asked federal regulators for permission to keep them operating for 20 years beyond when their licenses expire. This decision will have an impact on Cumberland County.

The three reactors are just 15 miles from the county line, to the northwest. This means in the colder months, prevailing winds blow from the northwest, directly toward Cum­berland.

Nuclear reactors generate electricity, but also create huge amounts of radioactive chemicals in the pro­cess. Their gases and particles are not found in nature, but only produced in nuclear weapons and reactors. The toxic mix includes Strontium-90, Iodine-131, and Cesium-137. Each causes cancer and is most harmful to the fetus, infant, and child.

These chemicals must be constantly cooled within the reactor core and in deep pools of water.

If cooling water is lost, from mechanical failure or terrorist attack, a meltdown would follow. Large amounts of radiation, equal to hundreds of Hiroshima bombs, would escape into the air. Safe evacuation of local residents would be impossible, and many thousands would be stricken by radiation poisoning and cancer.

A meltdown is not im­possible. The Three Mile Is­land reactor in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown in 1979, and the Chernobyl reactor in the former Soviet Union was rocked by a full meltdown in 1986.

A recent report identified three "near miss" accident situations at the Salem/Hope Creek plant.

Keeping an aging plant with corroding parts, in an age where potential terrorist attacks are all too real, increases the chance of a meltdown.

But a meltdown may not be necessary for the Salem/Hope Creek reactors to cause harm to its neighbors.

All nuclear reactors must routinely release some of its radioactivity into the air and water. Official records show that airborne releases of radioactive iodine from the Salem/Hope Creek are among the highest of any U.S. nuclear plant. This fact raises the question whether these emissions have moved into the Cumberland County environment and were breathed, eaten, and drunk by its residents.

A quick check of official health Cumberland County statistics indicates there are problems. In the most recent period available (2000-2006), Cumberland has the highest rate of any of the 21 New Jersey counties for:

  • death rate for infants (56 percent above the U.S. rate)
  • premature birth rate (35 percent above the U.S. rate)
  • death rate for all ages (20 percent above the U.S. rate)

There are many potential reasons that can explain high rates of death and disease. Cumberland County has a high proportion of poor people, who are limited in their access to needed health services. But we can't assume that poverty is the only reason why so many are dying. Health officials should examine the role of other potential causes-including radioactive emissions from the Salem/Hope Creek nuclear plant.

Until these serious health questions are answered, it would be premature to extend the Salem/Hope Creek licenses for 20 more years.

Safe, renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power becoming more available, and expanding these sources should be examined as a means of protecting public health.

Joseph J. Mangano, who holds master's degrees in public health and business administration, is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research & education organization based in New York. He lives in Ocean City.

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