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Feds Ignore Health Risks of Keeping Old Nuke Running
Joseph J. Mangano
Providence Journal
Op-ed March 27, 2007

A recent federal report ignores health risks of keeping the Pilgrim nuclear reactor in operation for 20 years after its license expires in 2012. The public should be disturbed, as the report fails to examine evidence that Pilgrim may have harmed local residents.

Radioactivity in Pilgrim’s reactor core and waste pools equals hundreds of Hiroshima bombs. A meltdown from mechanical failure or terrorist attack would result in the worst American environmental catastrophe ever, poisoning many thousands in the greater Boston area with deadly radiation.

But another Chernobyl or 9/11 attack isn’t necessary for Pilgrim to harm local citizens. Like all nuclear reactors, Pilgrim creates over 100 radioactive chemicals found only in nuclear weapons and reactors. Some is released into the air and water, and enters the body through breathing and the food chain. These chemicals cause cancer, and are especially harmful to infants and children. Some decay slowly and remain in the body for a lifetime.

Releases from Pilgrim are among the highest for U.S. reactors. But the recent government report fails to address this, declaring emissions to be harmless because they fall below federally-set limits. The report also includes no information on cancer rates among people living near the reactor, located in Plymouth.
Researchers from the state Department of Public Health have found leukemia rates to be highest in towns closest to the reactor. A National Cancer Institute study revealed that cancer mortality among Plymouth County children rose after startup. But these studies ended in the mid-1980s and no other health studies have since been attempted.

Both Plymouth County (where the reactor is located) and Norfolk County (just west of the reactor) have cancer death rates well above the U.S. average. But for all other causes, both counties have below-average rates. About 60,000 residents of the two counties died of cancer in the past quarter century.
Why are local death rates elevated only for cancer? Plymouth and Norfolk Counties have a well-educated population, a low rate of poverty, and access to top notch medical services in the Boston area. With no apparent explanation, radiation exposure from Pilgrim releases must be considered as one factor behind the elevated cancer death rate.

Citizens should not allow the federal government to give a free pass to the Exelon Corporation to operate Pilgrim until 2032. Instead, they should insist that regulators create a “report card” of how safely the plant has run, including a thorough review of radioactive emissions and cancer rates of persons living near the reactor.

In the meantime, renewable and non-polluting sources of energy such as solar and wind power should be developed. Substituting safe sources for the highly toxic nuclear option would best protect the health of current and future generations.

Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.


1. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission held public meetings in Plymouth MA asking for comments on the Draft Supplement to the Generic Environmental Impact Statement for License Renewal for Nuclear Plants on January 24, 2007.

2. From 1970-1987, Pilgrim emitted 6.56 curies of Iodine-131 and particulates (all radioactive chemicals with a half life of at least eight days) into the air, which is the 12th highest amount of the 112 U.S. reactors that operated during this period.

Pilgrim also emitted 1557 curies of fission and activation gases, also ranking it 12th of the 112 reactors.

Source: Tichler J, Doty K, Lucadamo K. Radioactive Materials Releases from Nuclear Power Plants. Upton NY: Brookhaven National Laboratory, prepared for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission annual reports. NUREG/CR-2907, BNL-NUREG-51581).

3. Leukemia incidence data in 22 towns closest to Pilgrim from 1978-1986 showed odds ratios of 1.44, 2.25, and 3.88 for persons living 13-23 miles, 4-13 miles, and 0-4 miles from the reactor, respectively.

Source: Morris MS and Knorr RS, Adult Leukemia and Proximity-Based Surrogates for Exposure to Pilgrim Plant’s Nuclear Emissions. Archives of Environmental Health, July/August 1996, Volume 51, Number 4, pp. 266-274.

4. Cancer mortality in children age 0-9, Plymouth County vs. U.S.

  • 1968-1972 (before reactor startup) 19 deaths, 22% below U.S.
  • 1973-1984 (after reactor startup) 38 deaths, 2% below U.S.
  • 1985-2002 (after reactor startup) 35 deaths, 2% below U.S.

Sources: Data before 1985: Jablon S. et al. Cancer in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities. NIH Pub. No. 90-874, Washington DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990. Data after 1984: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://wonder.cdc.gov, mortality-underlying cause of death.

5. Mortality, whites, adjusted to 2000 U.S. standard population, 1979-2004 Plymouth and Norfolk Counties (whites are used since they account for 95% of the local population).

Cause of Death
% +/- U.S.
Plymouth County      
All Cancers
+ 10.8%
All Other Causes
- 2.5%
Norfolk County      
All Cancers
+ 7.2%
All Other Causes
- 11.6%

Source: U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, http://wonder.cdc.gov, mortality-underlying cause of death. Uses ICD-9 codes (before 1999) and ICD-10 codes (after 1998) 140.0-239.9 and C00-D48.9.

6. The estimated 2005 population of Plymouth and Norfolk Counties are 492,409 and 653,595, respectively. The U.S. census shows the following local/national differences.

United States
% black, 2005
% Hispanic, 2005
% foreign born, 2000
% >5 English not spoken at home, 2000*
% >25 with High School Diploma, 2000**
%>25 with 4 Year College Degree, 2000***
% homeownership rate, 2000
Median household income, 2003
Per capita money income, 1999
Percent below poverty, 2003
* the percentage of residents age over 5 living in a home where English is not spoken in 2000.
** the percentage of residents age over 25 who graduated from High School.
*** the percentage of residents age over 25 who graduated from a 4 year college.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, http://www.census.gov/ Your Gateway to 2000 Census, state + county quick facts.

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