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Guest Commentary January 15, 2006

More Nuclear Reactors A Public Health Threat

By Joseph Mangano
and Samuel Epstein

(January 15, 2006) This fall, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission will decide whether or not to approve an application from Exelon, the largest nuclear utility company in the U.S. Exelon has requested permission to add one or two new nuclear reactors to the existing reactor at the Clinton plant, about 40 miles west of Champaign. Many expect the NRC to grant approval.

Constructing new reactors would end a long dry spell for the U.S. nuclear industry. After dozens were built in the 1960s and ‘70s, orders for new reactors stopped in 1978. The high cost of building and operating reactors, plus concerns about radiation exposure, accounted for the abrupt turnaround.

Exelon claims new reactors are 100 percent safe, and the NRC agrees. However, both are turning a blind eye to substantial contrary evidence. After opening in 1987, the existing Clinton reactor experienced a series of mechanical problems, which finally caused the plant to shut for nearly three years in the mid-1990s. Mechanical failures continue, especially as the reactor ages.

Clinton routinely emits over 100 radioactive chemicals, including Iodine-131, Cesium-137, and Strontium-90. This is the same toxic chemical mix in atomic bomb test fallout that contaminated the U.S. environment in the 1950s and 1960s.

Human exposure to these radioactive chemicals occurs through breathing, eating, and drinking.

Each chemical has a different effect on the body. Iodine-131 attacks the thyroid gland. Cesium-137 disperses throughout the soft tissues. Strontium-90 seeks out the teeth and bone. High levels of Strontium-90 have been found in children’s teeth near numerous U.S. nuclear plants in the current “Tooth Fairy Project” conducted by the Radiation and Public Health Project.

Directly east within 60 miles of Clinton lie four counties: DeWitt, Piatt, Champaign, and Vermilion. The 300,000 people who live in this four-county downwind area are at greatest risk of harm from radiation emissions from the Clinton reactor.

At especially high risk are the approximately 4000 babies born each year in these counties. They suffer most from radiation exposure because of their still-undeveloped immune systems.

Official health department statistics show that when Clinton closed in the mid-1990s, the number of infant deaths fell nearly in half – a number that jumped when the reactor re-started.

- 1993 to 1995 (reactor operating) – 108 deaths in 3 years
- 1996 to 1998 (reactor shut down) - 65 deaths in 3 years
- 1999 to 2001 (reactor operating) - 119 deaths in 3 years

This means that more infants die when the existing Clinton reactor is running, and fewer die when it is not. The same pattern has occurred near other U.S. nuclear plants. So adding one or more reactors would place local babies at even greater risk.

There are other health and safety issues raised by building new reactors in central Illinois.

  • One is the devastating consequence of a meltdown to the reactor’s core, like those at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Many thousands would die or be sickened from the poisonous chemicals emitted into the air and water.
  • Also, highly radioactive waste continues to accumulate in deep pools of constantly cooled water located on the Clinton plant. If the cooling process fails, a catastrophic accident that would kill thousands would ensue. This waste has no place to go, as a proposal for a permanent U.S. location in Nevada is in trouble. New reactors would add thousands of tons of waste, further jeopardizing the health of local residents.
  • Another health concern at Clinton is that a terrorist attack would expose many thousands to deadly levels of radioactivity. But a terrorist attack is not necessary for people to suffer; they already are being exposed daily to poisonous radioactive chemicals from routine reactor operations.

Adding new reactors at Clinton would be an ill-advised public health policy. Industry and government officials should seek other, safer options, such as solar power, wind power, or natural gas, to provide the citizens of Illinois with electricity.

Joseph Mangano, MPH MBA is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project in New York City. Samuel Epstein, MD is Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois School of Public Health in Chicago and Chairman of the Cancer Prevention Coalition.

The News-Gazette

Champaign, Illinois









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