Rachel's Democracy & Health News #936, December 6, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: In the U.S., atomic bombs are no longer being tested. However, 104 nuclear power reactors still operate here, producing the same radioactive elements found in bomb test fallout, and people living downwind are routinely exposed to low levels of radioactivity.]

By Joseph J. Mangano

Nuclear power plants employ a controlled atomic fission reaction, splitting uranium atoms to create heat to boil water to make steam to turn a turbine to generate electricity. Because nuclear power is so complex, it is accident-prone and unforgiving -- small errors can have large consequences. Because of these important disadvantages, for the past three decades it has looked as if nuclear power were a dying industry.

But now the nuclear industry has seized on global warming to promote atomic power plants once again as necessary and safe. From politicians to corporate executives and conservative pundits, we hear that reactors are "clean" or "emission free" -- with no evidence offered to support the claims. Unfortunately, this baseless promotion emanates from a long-standing culture of deception that has plagued the industry since its beginnings. Earlier this year the British magazine, the Economist, characterized the U.S. nuclear industry as "a byword for mendacity, secrecy and profligacy with taxpayers' money.

Half a century ago, as America produced and exploded hundreds of atomic bombs (1054 nuclear tests in all, 331 in the atmosphere), public officials assured everyone that low-dose radiation exposures were harmless. But after the Cold War ended, barriers to the truth gave way. Government-funded research found that nuclear weapons workers and those exposed to fallout from atomic bomb tests in Nevada suffered from cancer in large numbers. The BEIR VII study. published by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences in 2005, ended the debate on this question: it is now firmly established that any amount of radioactive exposure carries some risk of harm. The only safe dose is zero.

In the U.S., atomic bombs are no longer being tested. However, 104 nuclear power reactors still operate here, producing the same radioactive elements found in bomb test fallout, and people living downwind are routinely exposed to low levels of radioactivity. Government regulators have established "permissible limits" for radioactive reactor emissions, declaring the resulting exposures "safe" -- contrary to the findings of the National Academy's BEIR VII study.

The U.S. nuclear power industry stopped growing in the mid-1970s. Until this year, no new reactors have been ordered in the U.S. since 1978, and several dozen reactors have been closed permanently.[1] But fears of global warming and an ardently pro-nuclear Administration in Washington have laid the groundwork for an industry revival.

The industry's revival plan has four parts:

1) Enlarging the capacity of existing reactors;

2) Keeping old reactors running beyond their design lifetime;

3) Operating old reactors more hours per year; and

4) Building new reactors.

To help promote the so-called nuclear renaissance, health risks from low-level radiation are once again being ignored or denied -- even though evidence of harm exists.

1. Expanding Existing Reactors -- Vermont Yankee

Since March 1993, utilities have submitted 99 requests to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for licenses to expand reactor capacity, and the NRC has approved all 99. The added capacity of 4400 megawatts is the equivalent of four large reactors. The NRC is considering 12 more applications, totaling another 1100 megawatts.

Most expansions have been small, but 10 of the 99 have raised capacity by 15 to 20%. Almost all sailed through with little public opposition. One exception was the Vermont Yankee reactor on the Connecticut River where Vermont, Massachusetts, and New Hampshire converge. It is the 11th oldest of the U.S.'s 104 reactors, and at 510 megawatts electrical, the 5th smallest.

Entergy Nuclear of Jackson, Miss. acquired Vermont Yankee in 2002 as part of its campaign to buy aging reactors to maximize their output and profit potential. Entergy wanted more than a 510 megawatt reactor, so it requested a 20% upgrade for Vermont Yankee -- the oldest U.S. reactor considered for an upgrade. The estimated cost was $60 million.[2]

Since 1972, when Vermont Yankee first generated power, Vermont has become an increasingly liberal state, especially on environmental issues. Hundreds of local residents opposed the expansion by packing auditoriums at several public meetings, making their fury known. Ira Helfand, a local emergency room physician, spoke up at one of them:

"My emergency room cannot deal with the casualties that would be produced by an accident at this plant... Now Entergy wants to make this plant even more dangerous by upgrading its production beyond what it was supposed to tolerate?.. . This plant should not be uprated. It shouldn't be allowed to operate. It should be shut down."[3]

Residents of Windham County, Vt., where the reactor is located, are well educated. The county poverty rate is low, and the mostly rural county of 44,000 has few polluting industries. Along with world class medical care in nearby Boston, these factors suggest that no unusually high rates of disease should exist. However, from 1979-2004 the county death rate was 7.2% below the U.S. -- except for cancer, which was 1.6% higher. These figures are age-adjusted, so the excess cancers are not attributable to an aging population. And the anomaly in Windham appears to be growing; most recently (1999-2004), the cancer death rate in Windham county has risen to 5.7% above the national average.[4]

The NRC refused to consider that radioactive emissions from Vermont Yankee might be contributing to the rise in cancer deaths in Windham county. In March 2006, the NRC approved the expansion, and an appeal by the New England Coalition Against Nuclear Power was turned down by the state Supreme Court in September 2007. Entergy is now operating an expanded Vermont Yankee reactor.

2. Keeping Old Reactors Running -- Oyster Creek, New Jersey

With Wall Street refusing to finance new reactors after the accident at Three Mile Island, utilities decided to increase profits by operating old reactors longer than originally planned. The NRC eased regulations and in this decade has approved 47 of 47 applications to allow reactors to operate past the initial 40-year design period up to a total of 60 years.[1] Dozens more applications are expected.

One exception to the federal rubber-stamping of license extensions is the Oyster Creek reactor in Lacey, New Jersey, about 60 miles from both Philadelphia and New York City. Oyster Creek is the oldest of the 104 U.S. reactors and one of the smallest (636 megawatts electrical). In the 1990s, the New Jersey-based GPU Corporation planned to close the reactor. This changed when AmerGen (a subsidiary of Exelon, the largest U.S. reactor operator) bought Oyster Creek and requested a license extension in 2005.[1]

The fight is going on now. Public hearings have been well attended by supporters and opponents of license extension. Local media has taken an interest; the Asbury Park Press, the most widely read newspaper in central New Jersey, has published numerous editorials opposing re- licensing. Governors James McGreevey and Jon Corzine have both publicly opposed re-licensing, as have many state and local elected officials. Governments in 19 local towns have passed resolutions of opposition. Legal interventions allowed by the NRC were filed by a coalition of citizen groups and by the state Department of Environmental Protection.

Information on radioactive contamination and local health became part of the Oyster Creek dialogue. A well publicized study (partly funded by the state legislature) of more than 300 baby teeth of New Jersey children, many living near Oyster Creek, found that average levels of radioactive Strontium-90 (Sr-90) had doubled from the late 1980s to the late 1990s.[5] More importantly, increases in Sr-90 near Oyster Creek were followed by similar increases in childhood cancer rates several years later.[6]

Ocean County, where the reactor is situated, has a population of nearly 600,000, up from 108,000 in 1960. Its residents are relatively well off, and have access to good medical care locally and in nearby major cities. But the low death rate for all causes other than cancer from 1979-2004 (8.4% below the U.S.) has been offset by an unexpectedly high cancer death rate (8.8% above the U.S. average).[4] With 39,000 county residents dying in the past quarter century, the number of "excess cancer deaths" exceeds 6,000.

The fate of Oyster Creek remains uncertain. In July, Exelon funded a group led by heavy-duty New Jersey lobbyists to ensure the application is pushed through. Local activist Janet Tauro reacted to the new group's formation by declaring,

"Exelon is putting its money into creating a bogus environmental group designed to lure the public's attention away from safety issues and scare us into believing that Oyster Creek's closure would hurt the region economically."[7]

3. Operating Old Reactors More Often -- Indian Point, New York

As recently as the late 1980s, U.S. reactors only ran at 63% of capacity; they were shut down 37% of the time for maintenance and repair. But larger corporations buying old reactors in the 1990s made it their mission to boost productivity, and now U.S. reactors run 90% of the time.[8] This is good news for the balance sheet, but running old reactors more hours per year raises safety and health concerns.

The two reactors at Indian Point, 35 miles north of New York City, represent a good example of this change. Until the mid-1990s, they only operated 57% of the time. But after Entergy Nuclear bought Indian Point, it raised the current productivity rate to 95%.[1]

Indian Point is in Westchester County, a wealthy area with a population of nearly one million. In the period 1979-2004, the cancer death rate in the county was just slightly below the national average (-1.8%), but well below the U.S. average for all other causes (-12.9%). If the cancer death rate in Westchester had been as far below the national average as deaths from all other causes (-12.9%), there would have been about 6,000 fewer cancer deaths in Westchester during the period.

Unlike reactor upgrades, license extensions, and new reactor orders, there are no mandated public hearings when a nuclear utility simply raises productivity. Thus, this issue has largely been ignored, at Indian Point and elsewhere.

4. Ordering New Reactors -- Calvert Cliffs, Maryland.

In 2005 the Bush Administration convinced Congress to enact billions in loan guarantees for new reactor construction because of continued disinterest from Wall Street; billions more in federal subsidies are currently under discussion now on Capitol Hill. With the loan guarantees put in place in 2005, utilities got serious about ordering new reactors. Over 30 have been discussed, and the dry spell of no orders since 1978 ended on July 31, 2007 when Unistar Nuclear submitted an application to the NRC for a new reactor at Calvert Cliffs, Md.

Unistar was formed when Constellation Energy of Baltimore failed to secure funds from Wall Street financiers for its new Calvert Cliffs reactor. The 2005 federal guarantees would only back 90% of costs, and private bankers have flatly refused to put up the other 10%. Constellation teamed up with the French company Areva to form Unistar. Areva put up $350 million in cash, promising to up the ante to $625 million. With financing secured, the new reactor was ordered.[9]

Unistar proposes to build a $4 billion, 1600 megawatt reactor at Calvert Cliffs. There is no precedent for a reactor this size; the average for the current U.S. reactors is about 1000 megawatts, with the largest being 1250. At the very earliest, assuming a fast, smooth regulatory review, rapid construction, and no legal holdups, the reactor would begin operating in 2014.

The Calvert Cliffs plant is on the west bank of the Chesapeake Bay, 45 miles southeast of Washington. Since the mid-1970s, two reactors have operated at the site. Until recently, the area was sparsely populated; but the Calvert County population has swelled from 16,000 to 90,000 since 1960. The county enjoys a high living standard, with a low poverty rate and good access to medical care in Washington.

Calvert County is a healthy place -- with the exception of cancer. From 1979-2004, the death rate was 9.2% above the U.S. for cancer, but 3.0% below the nation for other causes. Most recently (1999-2004), the cancer rate rose to 13.8% above the national average.

All local leaders support the new nuclear plant at Calvert Cliffs. Wilson Parran, the chair of the Calvert Board of Commissioners, sounded the clarion call that the promise of economic gain trumps any possible health hazards:

"From a national perspective, nuclear energy is our largest source of clean energy and a critical piece of our nation's energy strategy. It is imperative to reverse the growth of greenhouse gas emissions and Calvert County stands ready to share in our nation's responsibility to provide resources that produce energy."[9]

Putting Health First is Essential in Energy Policy

Unusually high cancer rates in counties like Windham, Ocean, Calvert, and Westchester should be taken seriously; they are not what you would expect among relatively well-off populations.[10] Even if a large scale reactor accident never occurs in this country, nuclear plants will still continuously emit about 100 different radioactive chemicals. The number of casualties is difficult to estimate, but it may well be in the thousands. And any expansion of nuclear power would only increase radioactive emissions.

Furthermore, threats to human health are not the only problem associated with the nuclear power industry. As we know from the recent history of India, Pakistan, Israel, South Africa, North Korea, and Syria, a nation that aims to build an atomic bomb begins by building a nuclear power plant. This is where they develop the expertise, the techniques, and the experience needed to build a bomb. The only sure way to minimize the proliferation of nuclear weapons would be to shut down the nuclear power industry world-wide. So long as the civilian nuclear power industry exists, there will be a well-worn path from nuclear power to nuclear weapons, accompanied by a growing threat of terrorist attack beyond anything we have yet imagined.

Fortunately, we do not need nuclear power at all. There are many alternatives readily available. Many of these were discussed recently in Arjun Makhijani's thorough study, "Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy." Nuclear power is simply too dirty, too dangerous, and too unnecessary to warrant further support.


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


[1] U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, www.nrc.gov.

[2] Matthew L. Wald. Safety of Adding to Nuclear Plants' Capacity is Questioned. New York Times, January 26, 2004.

[3] Eesha Williams, Hundreds Attend Hearing on Vermont Yankee. Transcript of New Hampshire Public Radio broadcast, April 1, 2004.

[4] National Center for Health Statistics, Mortality -- underlying cause of death. Includes ICD-9 cancer codes 140.0-239.9 (1979-1998) and ICD-10 cancer codes C00-D48.9 (1999-2004). http://wonder.cdc.gov/mortSQL.html

[5] Mangano J.J. and others. An unexpected rise in Strontium-90 in US deciduous teeth in the 1990s. The Science of the Total Environment Vol. 317 (2003), pgs. 37-51.

[6] Mangano J.J. A short latency between radiation exposure from nuclear plants and cancer in young children. International Journal of Health Services Vol. 36, No. 1 (2006), pgs. 113-135.

[7] Janet Tauro, But Safety Issues at Oyster Creek Can't Be Ignored. Asbury Park Press, September 9, 2007.

[8] Division of Planning, Budget, and Analysis. Information Digest. NUREG-1350. Washington DC: Nuclear Regulatory Commission, annual volumes.

[9] Dan Morse. Agency Describes Process to License Calvert Cliffs Plant. Washington Post, August 15, 2007.

[10] U.S. Bureau of the census, 2000 census, state and county quick facts. The national average of U.S. residents living below the poverty levels was 12.7%, which is higher than the average for Windham County, Vt. (9.0%), Ocean County, N.J. (7.6%), Westchester County, N.Y. (8.9%), and Calvert County, Md. (5.4%). The national average percent of residents over age 25 who graduated from high school was 80.4%, but was higher for Windham County, Vt. (87.3%), Ocean County, N.J. (83.0%), Westchester County, N.Y. (83.6%), and Calvert County, Md. (86.9%). http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/index.html