Commentary January 15, 2006
Nuclear Reactors A Public Health Threat
By Joseph Mangano
and Samuel Epstein
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.
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.
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.
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.
exposure to these radioactive chemicals occurs through breathing,
eating, and drinking.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
- 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.
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.
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.