No nuclear reactors have ever operated in Kentucky. In fact, they were banned by a 1984 state law. But efforts to overturn the ban are now moving through the state legislature. If the ban is lifted, electric companies would likely move quickly to build one or more new reactors in the state, as 33 new reactors have been proposed in the nationwide.
Concerns over global warming are behind the push for new nukes, since reactors don’t release greenhouse gases. But are reactors “clean” as their backers claim?
To produce electricity, reactors heat water by splitting uranium atoms. But in the process, they also create huge amounts of radioactive chemicals. There are over 100 chemicals in this mix, including Cesium-137, Iodine-131, and Strontium-90. They are not found in nature, but only when atomic bombs explode and nuclear reactors operate.
These vast amounts of radioactive chemicals are waste products. They must be stored in deep pools of constantly cooled water. Any loss of cooling water, from an accident or terrorist attack, means a meltdown, like the 1986 Chernobyl disaster.
A meltdown would release huge amounts of radiation into the air. The area around the nuclear plant could not be evacuated in time, and many would breathe in the toxic chemicals. Thousands would suffer from radiation poisoning or cancer.
Even if a worst-case meltdown doesn’t happen, the threat is there. President Obama has cut off funding for the permanent waste repository that was being built at Yucca Mountain Nevada. With no other plans, nuclear plants will be stuck with the waste for the foreseeable future.
Reactors pose another, actual, health threat, not just a potential one. A portion of the waste must be routinely released into local air and water for reactors to operate. The mixture of toxic chemicals enters human bodies by breathing and the food chain.
Once in the body, radioactive particles harm cells, leading to cancer. For example, iodine seeks out the thyroid gland, raising the risk of thyroid cancer. Strontium enters the bone and bone marrow, raising the risk of bone cancer and leukemia. Cesium distributes through all soft tissues, raising risk of many types of cancer. They are especially damaging to the fetus, infant, and child.
Kentucky has the highest lung cancer rate of any U.S. state. But its rate for a number of other cancers (colon, rectum, anus, larynx, cervix, and kidney) ranks among the highest five states in the country. Because coal production and use has undoubtedly contributed to these high numbers, replacing one harmful form of electricity with another would not constitute sound public policy.
Kentucky has experience with nuclear plants. Paducah, in the western part of the state, is the site of a gaseous diffusion plant opened in 1950 to help produce nuclear weapons. Workers were exposed to radiation on the job, and leaks added radiation to the local environment. According to the National Cancer Institute, the cancer death rate in Ballard and McCracken Counties (closest to Paducah) was 15% below the U.S. average when the plant opened. But by the late 1970s, the rate had jumped to 8% above the nation, where it remains today.
The primary goal of Kentucky’s energy future should be meeting the public needs with no additional threat to public health. Cancer rates in the state are high enough; thus, any plan to generate electricity should emphasize conservation, efficiency, and clean technologies such as solar and wind to minimize health problems.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.