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Nuclear power's dirty secret

New federal research shows that there's no safe level of exposure to routine radiation coming out of nuclear power plants. Why aren't regulators taking that into account as utilities begin a campaign to restart the industry?

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We the people of North Carolina and other states across the nation face a decision that will affect not only our own well-being and that of our children, but the well-being of countless future generations. Our choice is whether to allow utilities to meet our energy needs by building new nuclear power plants that routinely emit long-lived radioactive pollution to our already-contaminated environment.

The decision comes as a federal science panel has found that there is no safe level of radiation exposure--a fact not accounted for in current nuclear plant regulations.

Companies around the United States are pushing to expand nuclear capacity for the first time in more than 30 years, since the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor disaster in 1979. In one of the more ambitious plans, Progress Energy of Raleigh said earlier this year that it would apply for licenses from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to build as many as four new reactors at two sites, one in the Carolinas and another in Florida. The company, which is also seeking more coal-fired plants, expects to pick its nuclear locations by early next year, according to spokesperson Julie Hans.

Progress now operates five reactor units in three states: one at the Shearon Harris plant 16 miles southwest of Raleigh; two at the Brunswick plant near Southport, N.C.; one at the H.B. Robinson plant outside Hartsville, S.C.; and another at its plant in Crystal River, Fla.

Duke Energy of Charlotte also wants more nukes. The company recently confirmed that it's readying paperwork to build two reactors at a site still to be announced. Duke currently operates three nuclear facilities: the McGuire plant 14 miles north of Charlotte on Lake Norman; Oconee in Seneca, S.C.; and Catawba on Lake Wylie in York, S.C. In addition, Richmond, Va.-based Dominion Corp., which serves northeastern North Carolina, has requested a permit for new construction at its nuke plant in Mineral, Va. Duke is interested in more coal plants as well.

Elsewhere, Entergy Corp. wants to expand its nuclear operations in Port Gibson, Miss.; the Tennessee Valley Authority plans to enlarge a plant near Scottsboro, Ala.; and Exelon Corp. of Chicago wants to grow its nuclear facility near Clinton, Ill. The companies are positioning themselves to take advantage of the energy bill President Bush signed into law in August that gives nuclear operators tax credits, loan guarantees, insurance against regulatory delays, and liability protections in case of disaster--a total of about $13 billion in taxpayer subsidies, according to an estimate by Public Citizen, a nonprofit watchdog group.

To that end, the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry's major trade association, recently launched an $8 million public-relations campaign to remove "all major legislative and regulatory impediments to a nuclear renaissance," PR Week reports. In its drive to expand, however, the industry is not talking about the risks of nuclear power--including mounting evidence for health problems from even low levels of radiation such as those emitted by normally operating reactors.

Even some nuclear watchdogs shy away from talking about routine emissions. Jim Warren of the Durham-based N.C. Waste Awareness and Reduction Network calls the issue a "hard sell" that doesn't "score very big" with the public. His group focuses instead on the risks of catastrophic radiation releases from system failures, noting that Shearon Harris has experienced at least 12 cooling system failures and leaks since 2003 as well as numerous fire safety violations. In addition, the facility stores highly radioactive spent fuel in cooling pools located near the plant; a loss of water to the pools could spark a nuclear fire that would render a large swath of the state uninhabitable. But even if potential disasters don't come to pass, nuclear plants are still polluting our environment with radiation through routine releases--and building more would only increase emissions.

And there's more evidence than ever before that even very small amounts of radiation are harmful to human health. The National Academy of Sciences--a federal advisory body made up of the nation's most distinguished scholars--released a report earlier this year that found no safe threshold for radiation exposure, with even the smallest dose increasing cancer risk. But the federal government has not revamped nuclear plant regulations to reflect the NAS findings. And even under the existing regulations based on outdated science, 12 people are expected to die as a direct result of the normal operation of each commercial nuclear reactor during each 20-year license period. Furthermore, that calculation assumes the exposed person is a healthy adult male, even though the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated radiation's effects on children and fetuses are about three and 10 times as severe, respectively, than the same dose to an adult.

"Our government makes standards that are supposedly to protect people, but in fact the standards enable industry to kill a certain number of people," says biologist Mary Olson of the Asheville, N.C. office of the nonprofit Nuclear Information and Resource Service. "They're basically bag limits on the population."

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The nuclear industry likes to promote itself as a clean source of energy, and that message is a key theme in its current PR offensive. Announcing Progress Energy's expansion plans earlier this month, for example, Chairman and CEO Bob McGehee said nuclear power might be the best option to provide "emissions-free energy." And industry leaders like McGehee have successfully persuaded not only the public but also political leaders of nuclear energy's inherent cleanliness.

"Of all our nation's energy sources, only nuclear power plants can generate massive amounts of electricity without emitting an ounce of air pollution or greenhouse gases," President Bush said in an August speech at Sandia National Laboratories, a government-owned nuclear facility in Albuquerque, N.M.

It's true that reactors don't emit heat-trapping carbon dioxide as do facilities burning fossil fuels (although that doesn't make them a good solution to climate change, since they're about the slowest option to deploy and cost far more than other alternatives such as wind power and cogeneration, as Rocky Mountain Institute Director Amory Lovins detailed in a talk last month in Chapel Hill). But it's not true that nuclear plants are emissions-free. In fact, they routinely release radioactivity through leaks in the fuel rods, pipes, tanks and valves, according to NIRS. They also routinely release contaminated water in order to limit the presence of radioactive and corrosive chemicals that damage reactor parts. Entering the outside environment through plants' stacks and water discharge pipes, the radioactive pollution includes more than 100 different chemicals produced only in reactors and atomic bombs--substances including cesium-137, iodine-131, strontium-90 and tritium, an isotope of helium.

By breathing radiation-contaminated air, drinking contaminated water or eating contaminated food, humans ingest these chemicals. They in turn release fast-moving subatomic particles into our bodies that smash into and break molecules, leading to cancer, birth defects and genetic mutations. Some of these substances seek out specific targets. Radioactive iodine, for example, aims for the thyroid. Strontium mimics calcium and goes for the bones. Tritium behaves like water, dispersing throughout the body and entering cells where it can disrupt DNA.

"The thing about radiation is that you can't see it and you can't smell it, so when the nuclear industry says they do not pollute, people can't provide evidence through their senses to challenge that," says Olson, who suffered health problems after being accidentally exposed to radiation while working in a medical school laboratory. "Yet all nuclear power reactors release radioactivity to the air and to the water."

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The Shearon Harris plant in southwestern Wake County is no exception. The reactor is located on and cooled by water from Harris Lake, a popular fishing and boating spot and part of Harris Lake County Park. Created by damming a tributary of the Cape Fear River, a drinking source for downstream communities, the lake's water is contaminated with tritium from the plant, and its sediment and aquatic vegetation are contaminated with gamma radiation from the facility, according to the plant's 2004 Radiological Environmental Operating Amended Report recently submitted to the NRC. Tritium and gamma radiation can cause cancer and genetic mutations.

Under NRC regulations companies monitor their own releases, and Progress last year found average Harris Lake tritium levels at 4,200 picocuries per liter, with a high concentration of 6,820 picocuries per liter. While that's below the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's limit for drinking water of 20,000 picocuries per liter and 30,000 picocuries per liter for surface water, it's hundreds of times greater than average global tritium background levels in surface water, which the U.S. Department of Energy estimates at about 25 picocuries per liter. (Progress maintains that local background levels are much higher--about 300 picocuries per liter--based on its testing upstream of the Harris plant.) Tritium, which has a half-life of 12.3 years, can build up over time and seep into groundwater; indeed, one of the company's groundwater monitoring sites near the plant has registered tritium levels as high as 613 picocuries per liter. The company tries to minimize the lake's tritium levels by releasing liquid waste during periods of high rainfall, but its efforts are complicated by the fact that the region is currently suffering from an extended drought.

Fortunately, Progress detected no tritium 17 miles downstream in Lillington, the first public drinking water location below the plant's discharge spillway. And it minimizes the threat to public health posed by the gamma-contaminated sediment and aquatic vegetation, noting that the sediment "is not easily accessible" and the vegetation "is not an ingestion pathway." However, the lake is stocked with fish, including bottom feeders such as catfish. Self-monitoring found no reactor-related gamma activity in the fish sampled, but fish tritium levels are assumed equal to the lake's levels. Progress calculated the total annual body dose of tritium to the maximum exposed individual--an adult eating 21 kilograms of the lake's fish--at .009 millirems, which is far lower than the allowable limit of 100 millirems.

"All of our generating plants are well within limits determined by the Environmental Protection Agency, Nuclear Regulatory Commission and the state of North Carolina," says Progress spokesperson Hans.

And it's true that when we talk about routine emissions, we're talking about relatively small amounts of radiation. The average annual effective radiation dose to people living within 31 miles of a nuclear reactor from all radionuclides released is .5 millirems for pressurized water reactors like Harris and McGuire and 1 millirem for boiling water reactors like Brunswick, according to the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation. But these emissions are coming from three nuclear facilities across North Carolina and another 19 throughout the Southeast, 104 reactors in the United States and 441 others around the world. And that comes on top of the lingering radiation from atomic bomb fallout as well as the 240 millirems of natural background radiation each of us typically receives each year.

"We know the level of radiation that is naturally occurring causes cancer," Olson says. "And so every single addition to it causes even more cancer."

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Meanwhile, a growing body of research suggests that exposure to any amount of radiation--even at levels far below the U.S. government's allowable limits--can make us sick. In June, the National Academy of Science's National Research Council released the latest in a series of reports on health risks from radiation exposure, titled Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation-VII (BEIR-VII). It found that the preponderance of scientific evidence shows that exposure to radiation at even barely detectable doses can cause DNA damage that leads to cancers.

"The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial," says Richard Monson, a Harvard epidemiologist and chair of the research committee. "The health risks--particularly the development of solid cancers in organs--rise proportionally with exposure."

The findings were a vindication for Joseph Mangano, a controversial researcher who's long sounded the alarm about the hazards of low-level radiation. An N.C. State grad with a master's in public health from UNC-Chapel Hill, Mangano works with the New York-based nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project, which documents evidence for a connection between low-level radiation and health problems such as infant mortality and cancer. Over the years the group has focused a great deal of attention on routine emissions from nuclear power plants, and the current push to build more reactors worries Mangano and his colleagues.

"We're very concerned that these efforts are taking place without a thorough consideration of the health effects," he says. "These harmful chemicals are getting out of reactors and getting into our bodies. What are the health risks?"

Mangano's work leads him to suspect those risks could include higher rates of childhood cancer and infant mortality. In a study published in the February 2003 issue of the journal Archives of Environmental Health, he and his colleagues used Centers for Disease Control and Prevention statistics to examine childhood cancer incidence and mortality in 49 counties situated mostly or completely within 30 miles of nuclear facilities in the eastern United States from 1988 to 1997. They found a pattern of increased childhood cancer incidence in the nuclear zones, with a cancer incidence for children under 10 that was 12.4 percent greater in nuclear counties than the United States as a whole.

In another study published in the same journal a year earlier, Mangano and colleagues documented a drop in infant deaths and childhood cancers in areas downwind of eight nuclear plants that closed. Infant mortality rates fell during the first two years after closing in each of the eight areas 30 miles downwind of the plants, for a total decline of 17.4 percent. That compares to a decline for other counties in the same states of just 6.7 percent. And in the states that operated comprehensive cancer registries at the time the reactors closed, the incidence of newly diagnosed cancers in children under age 5 fell by 25 percent, differing significantly from the overall U.S. rate, which remained steady.

Mangano points to similar patterns near Shearon Harris, where sharp rises in infant mortality and childhood cancer occurred downwind following the reactor's start-up on Jan. 3, 1987. (Nuclear plant emissions tend to follow what's been described as a "bathtub curve": high as the reactor starts up, dropping and leveling off, then rising as the reactor ages.) From 1986 to 1987, the infant mortality rate jumped 19.5 percent in Wake County and 22.9 percent in Durham County at the same time it fell 1.1 percent in other North Carolina counties (excluding Wake and Durham) and 2.6 percent nationwide. He also compared childhood cancer death rates for the 1979-1987 period to the 1988-2002 period in Wake and Durham, finding rates rose 47.8 percent and 97.8 percent respectively while declining 31.4 percent in other North Carolina counties and 28 percent nationwide.

Mangano and his colleagues are not the only researchers to raise red flags about the health impacts of normally operating nuclear plants. While some studies have found no connection between nuclear operations and health problems, others have documented elevated childhood cancer rates near nuclear facilities in Canada, France, Germany and the former Soviet Union. Researchers found a rise in multiple myeloma mortality near a nuclear power plant in Spain. And a study by Massachusetts Department of Public Health officials published in the Archives of Environmental Health in 1996 found an increase in leukemia among adults living near that state's Pilgrim nuclear plant, with the relative risk increasing 400 percent among those with the greatest exposure to the plant's emissions.

Progress, however, does not put any stock in Mangano's findings. "In terms of this specific study, it would be impossible to form an informed opinion based on the fact that no statistical or meaningful data is documented to support any conclusion," says spokesperson Hans, who accuses Mangano of harboring an agenda to incite fear in the public.

Indeed, the nuclear industry has been highly critical of the RPHP's work. The NEI devotes a section of its Web site ( www.nei.org ) to rebutting the findings of project founders Ernest Sternglass, a professor emeritus of radiological physics at the University of Pittsburgh, and Jay Gould, a statistician and former EPA science advisor who died recently. Ignoring the National Academy findings that there are no safe levels, the NEI claims that allegations linking low-level radiation to health effects have been discredited. But mainstream epidemiologists have also faulted Mangano's work for failing to include exposure information. And even some nuclear foes are critical of the RPHP. Olson, for example, says the group's researchers too often have confused correlation with causation.

Nevertheless, she believes their findings deserve further investigation, since statistical and temporal correlations point to areas where more research and regulatory action could be needed.

"People call me a troublemaker and junk scientist," Mangano acknowledges. "But I ask, What proof do they have that these permissible levels of radiation are in fact harmless?"

***

Even members of the scientific establishment can find themselves tarred as purveyors of "junk" for producing research that sullies the nuclear industry's clean image, as UNC-Chapel Hill epidemiologist Dr. Steven Wing has discovered.

In the early 1990s, Wing was asked to provide epidemiological evidence for the 2,000 plaintiffs who sued the operator of the Three Mile Island nuclear power plant near Harrisburg, Pa. after the facility's partial meltdown in March 1979. He had previously studied cancer mortality at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, finding that workers exposed to on-the-job radiation at levels far less than Department of Energy standards were dying from leukemia at higher rates than their counterparts in the general public.

Wing was wary of becoming involved in the TMI case because he knew mainstream scientists considered allegations of high radiation doses there "a product of radiation phobia or efforts to extort money from a blameless industry," as he wrote in a 2003 monograph published in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives. But, touched by the plaintiffs' humanity and having experienced official attempts to suppress damning evidence firsthand, he agreed to examine data for the case.

"One of the things I learned was sometimes officials say things that turn out not to be true," Wing says of his work at Oak Ridge, where radiation records he sought were withheld for two years. "It's not necessarily because people are trying to make up a story, but sometimes it's because they don't want to know."

Wing and his colleagues subsequently documented among people living near TMI symptoms consistent with acutely high levels of radiation exposure--skin rashes, hair loss, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, even pet deaths. Those symptoms indicate exposures of 50 rems or higher, far more than the 100 millirems the NRC estimates was the maximum dose at the site's edge. The researchers also found lung cancer and leukemia rates two to 10 times higher downwind of TMI. But the presiding judge in the case dismissed the research on a technicality and then ruled there wasn't enough evidence to proceed.

To this day, the nuclear industry refuses to acknowledge Wing's findings or the experiences of injured residents. The NRC's official TMI fact sheet released last year says the incident "led to no deaths or injuries to plants workers or members of the nearby community." It does not mention that TMI's owners and builders have paid at least $14 million in out-of-court settlements, with one of the largest to the family of a child born with the genetic disorder Down's syndrome, as documented by the Harrisburg-based watchdog group Three Mile Island Alert. Meanwhile, Wing has become the target of ridicule and derision by nuclear power's defenders. They include Steven Milloy, a conservative Cato Institute scholar and former corporate lobbyist whose JunkScience.com Web site accuses Wing of seeking fame over truth.

Wing's experiences have led him to take a broader look at nuclear power's health effects, transcending a narrow focus on whether this level of radiation can be tied to that disease or death. Nuclear power, Wing observes, places control of energy supplies in the hands of a very small group of people--a technological elite. Furthermore, it breeds secrecy because of the need to keep the technology from falling into the wrong hands and being used to make nuclear or radiological weapons.

As Wing sees it, nuclear power is simply incompatible with democracy.

"People don't think of democracy in terms of health, but it has a lot of health implications," he says. "Historically health has come about not by having access to doctors so much as by having good nutrition and good housing and safe jobs and adequate education and clean water and clean air. And those things come about when people have control over their lives."

Indeed, nuclear regulators recently limited citizens' opportunity to participate in the reactor licensing process. Under the old system, a nuclear utility had to apply for a construction license and then seek a separate operating license after completing the plant, giving the public two chances to weigh in with concerns. But now the NRC grants a single license prior to construction. Nevertheless, as the licensing process moves forward, people in North Carolina and elsewhere across the country will still get a chance to weigh in on utilities' choice to build more nuclear reactors.

And make no mistake about it--nuclear power is a choice, not a necessity. The choice is between spending $13 billion for more polluting nuclear power plants or aggressively pursuing energy conservation along with cleaner, more economically efficient sources of power such as solar, wind and biomass.

"The question is what additional exposures do we want to live with by choosing to produce electricity in nuclear reactors?" Wing asks. "What additional risks do we want to leave for literally hundreds of generations in the future?"

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