The recent agreement between the Fresno Nuclear Energy Group and the French company Areva SA is a step towards building new nuclear reactors in Fresno County, and speculation is that reactors would be located in the western portion of the county.
New reactors are prohibited by a 1976 California law. Several years ago, some state legislators tried unsuccessfully to repeal the ban, and are expected to try again. With or without a ban on reactors, health risks should be considered. Some advocates call nuclear power "clean" or "emission-free" because reactors do not emit greenhouse gases.
But calling nuclear power "clean" is misleading. To generate electricity, reactors must produce enormous amounts of radioactive waste, a mixture of over 100 chemicals. These chemicals are not found in nature, but only created when atomic bombs explode and nuclear reactors operate. Some decay quickly, but others remain for hundreds of years.
After over 20 years of federal efforts to make Yucca Mountain, Nevada a permanent site for storing waste, the Obama administration cut off funding, and all waste will remain at each nuclear plant for the foreseeable future. Thus, new reactors in Fresno County would be stuck with these very toxic chemicals.
Waste is stored in deep pools of constantly-cooled water. If these pools ever lose water, a meltdown would occur. Massive amounts of radioactive gases and particles would be released into the environment, and many thousands would be exposed - and suffer from radiation poisoning or cancer - before an evacuation could be completed.
Not all waste is stored; some is routinely released into local air and water. These chemicals enter human bodies by breathing and the food chain, where they kill or injure cells. Exposed persons, especially infants and children, have a greater risk of cancer.
No place is a good place for a nuclear reactor, but Fresno County may be an especially dangerous one. The county's population is nearing 1 million, and rising rapidly. It already has barriers to good health, including high poverty rates, below-average educational levels, and language barriers.
Western Fresno County, where the reactors are slated to be built, is the site of huge farms. Radioactive releases would enter the soil and produce - which is consumed not just locally, but all around the nation. These farms are already saturated with pesticides and herbicides, and radiation would add to the chemical load in the food.
Fresno County disease rates are already high, especially among those most vulnerable to radiation. Its infant death rate is 26% above the state, and its cancer death rate for children and young adults is 24% higher. The death rate for all residents was 2% below the state rate in the early 1980s but is now 12% higher, and the gap is still growing. A total of 15 nuclear reactors were proposed in the 1960s and 1970s for California. But eight were never built due to huge costs, and three shut down after many mechanical problems. Before building new reactors, health risks should be thoroughly considered; especially as truly "clean" options such as wind and solar power are available.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.