Radiation andPublic Health Project
Home About RPHP Projects Publications & Reports Journal Press Room


Old nuclear plants threaten Delaware
Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA

Delaware News Journal
Monday, , October 5, 2009

Last week, PSEG Nuclear officially asked federal regulators to extend the licenses of the three nuclear reactors at the Salem/Hope Creek site for 20 more years. The reactors, which are just 15 miles from downtown Wilmington, are aging, and their original licenses will soon expire.

Regulators will take several years to make an official decision. But in reality, they have already made up their minds to approve it. In this decade, the government has granted 52 of 52 requests for license extension -- half of the 104 nuclear reactors in the U.S. -- with more likely to follow.

Companies like PSEG Nuclear claim that nuclear reactors produce "safe, reliable, economic, and green energy." But for years, there have been major concerns about the health threat posed by nuclear reactors.

The most blatant threat is the possibility of a meltdown, either from mechanical failure or act of sabotage. In its core and waste pools, Salem/Hope Creek stores the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshima bombs of radioactivity that must be constantly cooled with water.

Loss of cooling water means disaster, as large amounts of radioactivity would escape into the environment. Because nearly 5 million people live within 50 miles of the plant, safe evacuation would be impossible, and many would breathe, eat and drink harmful gases and particles.

A 1982 estimate presented to Congress calculated that a meltdown at Salem/Hope Creek would kill 100,000 persons from acute radiation poisoning, the highest casualty estimate of any U.S. nuclear plant. Many of these casualties would be Delaware residents.

A meltdown is not impossible, as it occurred at one of the Chernobyl nuclear reactors 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 another Chernobyl or 9/11 attack may not be necessary for Salem/Hope Creek to harm local residents. All nuclear reactors must routinely release some of their radioactivity into the air and water. There are more than 100 radioactive chemicals -- only produced in nuclear weapons and reactors -- in the toxic mix, including strontium-90, iodine-131, and cesium-137. Each causes cancer and is most harmful to the fetus, infant and child.

Official records show that airborne releases of radioactive iodine from the three Salem/ Hope Creek reactors are among the highest of any U.S. nuclear plant. This fact raises the question whether these emissions have harmed Delaware residents -- an issue has never been addressed.

Delaware has the sixth- highest cancer incidence rate among the 50 states. For child cancer, the Delaware rate is higher than any other U.S. state. There may be many reasons for this, but none is obvious. The state has a low poverty rate, high educational levels, few language barriers and access to top medical care in Wilmington and Philadelphia. Health officials should investigate all potential reasons for these high cancer rates, especially in children -- including releases from Salem/ Hope Creek.

In the meantime, no approval should be given to the proposal to extend the Salem/Hope Creek license for 20 more years -- until health risks are better understood. In the meantime, safe, renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind power are becoming more available, and relying on these sources would better protect public health in Delaware.

Joseph J. Mangano, MPH, MBA, is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education organization based in New York.

Back to Spotlight