Federal regulators have begun to evaluate whether the two Diablo Canyon nuclear reactors in San Luis Obispo County deserve 20-year license extensions. Regulators have rubber-stamped 59 of 59 proposed extensions around the U.S., and approving Diablo Canyon means the reactors could operate until 2045.
Regulators are now working up an environmental impact statement, a document that will — like the ones for the other reactors — conclude Diablo Canyon poses no health threat to humans. But scientific evidence contradicts, rather than supports, this conclusion.
To produce electricity, reactors produce more than 100 radioactive chemicals — the same cocktail found in fallout of atomic bomb tests years ago. The equivalent of several hundred Hiroshima bombs is present at Diablo Canyon.
The most dramatic health concern posed by reactors is a meltdown. A large-scale release of radioactivity from the waste pools or the reactor core would expose many to deadly radioactivity, and cause thousands to suffer from radiation poisoning and cancer. A meltdown could occur from mechanical failure (like the 1986 Chernobyl accident), or an act of sabotage (like the 9/11 attacks).
But another Chernobyl or 9/11 attack is not needed for reactors to cause harm. They routinely release a portion of the 100-plus radioactive chemicals into the air and water. These products enter human bodies through breathing and the food chain, and attack healthy cells in various organs. They cause cancer and are especially toxic to the fetus, infant and child.
Regulators have ignored health trends among local residents since Diablo Canyon started operating. The reactor is situated near the border of San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties, where nearly 700,000 people live.
Official statistics show that since the late 1980s, the cancer death rate in children living in the two counties has soared 65 percent, compared to a 20 percent drop nationwide. Large increases in death rates have also occurred among local children due to birth defects and immune-related conditions.
Perhaps not coincidentally, an independent study showed a large rise in radiation levels in baby teeth of local children after Diablo Canyon started operating.
In the 1960s and 1970s, utility companies ordered 15 nuclear reactors in the state of California. Reactors were once seen as the major solution to energy needs, until health and safety concerns changed many minds. Of the 15 California reactors, only seven ever started and only four are still operating.
Although nuclear reactors do not emit greenhouse gases, the processes required to generate nuclear fuel (uranium mining, milling, enrichment, and purification) are dirty operations requiring substantial fossil fuels. These, plus the enormous amount of radiation produced in the reactors, directly contradict the idea that Diablo Canyon is “clean” and “safe.” The large rises in death rates to local children actually suggest they have harmed people, and contradict any conclusion by regulators that operating Diablo Canyon for 20 more years would not pose a health threat.
Energy policy has many aspects, but none as important as health. Our leaders have a great opportunity to shift the focus of electrical sources from harmful coal and nuclear to safe solar and wind. If this is done, fewer children will suffer from diseases like cancer.
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.