There are 433 nuclear power plant (NPP) reactors in the world today. Ever since the nuclear disaster at Fukushima last year, anyone living near one of these reactors now knows there are considerable risks to their homes and communities and to their health and safety. Before Fukushima, most Japanese felt safe and trusted what the government and the nuclear industry told them.
After Fukushima, the vast majority of Japanese no longer trust anything that officials say about radiation. The country has shut down all 50 of its nuclear reactors.
Other countries, such as Germany, followed suit and decided to phase out all nuclear power. Here in the United States, it is much more difficult to take dramatic action because the nuclear industry is very rich and powerful and well-connected politically.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), heavily influenced by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI, the lobbying arm of the nuclear industry), has taken very little action after Fukushima and presses on with plans to build yet more reactors and relicense old ones which are nearing the end of their designed life expectancy.
But accidents like as a Fukushima meltdown are not the only reason to worry.
Recently another ugly possibility has emerged which might threaten the health of everyone nearby: the danger of cancer caused by the radiation that Edison regularly releases into the air and ocean. It just might be that living near a NPP is dangerous even if it runs like a Swiss watch and never has an accident.
The reason for this new worry comes from a recent bombshell report from none other than the prestigious National Academy of Sciences (NAS). On March 29, the NAS issued a 412 page report entitled “Analysis of Cancer Risks for Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities.” This scientific study, written by 20 leading radiation epidemiologists, was commissioned by the NRC. Those who want to wade through it can check it out: http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13388#aboutprepub
The NAS carefully reviewed all the scientific evidence linking cancer to nuclear power plants and concluded that many studies are flawed and that new research is needed. The main thrust of the report was to recommend careful epidemiological studies in six population zones near NPP in the U.S.
Guess what? Scientists want to study cancer streaks right here. San Onofre was chosen as one of the lucky six, the only plant selected west of the Mississippi River. Many of those who just learned about this express a relief that the cancer link is finally being taken seriously. Results might not be known for years, but the fact that scientists want to study this area is reason enough to worry.
What do the scientists mean by “local population?” Many people think that local might mean a few towns like San Clemente, Dana Point, and San Juan Capistrano and perhaps Camp Pendleton. The shocker is that the scientists defined the population area to be studied as a radius of 50 kilometers (31 miles) surrounding San Onofre.
This includes 2.4 million people in over 50 towns and cities. Those who imagined that nuclear dangers don’t apply to them because they are 10 or 20 miles away are in for a surprise. This is obviously a regional issue.
The 31 mile radius is not as large as the 50 mile zone that U.S. officials proposed for evacuation (everyone between Los Angeles and San Diego), but it is still a hefty chunk of Southern California.
Starting at Newport Beach and Huntington Beach in the north, the circle would take in Santa Ana, Tustin, Irvine and almost all towns in Orange County. In Riverside county it would pass through Corona and include Lake Elsinore, Murrieta, and Temecula. In San Diego County it would include Fallbrook, Vista, San Marcos, Escondido, and all those coastal towns such as Solana Beach, Encinitas, Carlsbad, and Oceanside. All of Camp Pendleton is within the 30 mile radius.
Many are shocked that scientists want to look for possible cancer streaks in what otherwise might be considered one of the most desirable parts of the country. Knowing there might be a cancer risk because of San Onofre, how many might be having second thoughts about wanting to live in this area? Is it time to move, especially if you have kids or plan to start a family? Would a business want to locate in an area where there are cancer streaks? Until the study is completed, no one will know for sure whether San Onofre could be causing cancer. We do know that in 2011 there were 163,480 new cases of cancer in California and 56,030 cancer deaths.
What is so toxic about San Onofre? It is no secret that the plant generates about 500 pounds per day of radioactive waste and now stores thousands of tons in pools and casks outside of the containment domes. This material is so deadly that no other place in the United States is willing to store it.
So San Onofre is essentially a nuclear waste repository growing in size every day with little chance of having it carted elsewhere. The NRC “plan” for waste was to have every plant store it on site for 60 or more years. Thankfully, a federal court just ruled that this endangered the public and was an unacceptable plan. It is unsettling that the NRC was perfectly happy to endanger the public and had to be slapped down by a federal court.
This stored radioactive waste is a huge hazard if there is ever a fire or earthquake or terrorist attack. But it is not only the stored waste that scares people. The dirty little secret that worries public health officials is the regular releases of radiation that are part of the normal operation of every NPP in the world. There are some substances like Tritium (radioactive hydrogen or H3) which are difficult or impossible to contain.
Tritium, a byproduct of nuclear power, is nasty stuff used in triggers for nuclear weapons. If inhaled or swallowed it can be lethal. In addition to Tritium, NPP regularly release dozens of radioactive isotopes. Some are vented into the atmosphere where the wind carries them over populated areas. Others are dumped into the ocean.
The NRC allows power plants to carry out this dumping (called effluent emissions) because without such releases of radioactivity, nuclear power plants could not operate. The total amount is regulated and anything released is called “low level.” This presupposes that certain levels of radiation are totally harmless, a contention that is disputed.
Some medical authorities say that there is no such thing as a harmless low level. Radiation effects are cumulative, and if you add years or decades of radiation from a NPP to environmental exposure and medical tests you may be doing significant damage at a cellular level which could end up turning into cancer.
Plants are not required to post the time, date, or concentration of each release but they are required to state yearly averages. The problem with such minimal requirements is that radiation releases on one day can be averaged with many days of no release to produce a statistically low average. (Statisticians might call this an averaging artifact.) In 2010, Edison’s documents reveal that it released 34 different radionuclides including Plutonium, Strontium 90, and Cesium 137, all extremely toxic to living tissue.
San Onofre reactors are fitted with air ejectors which released radioactive byproducts into the atmosphere for 44 hours during the year. Wind direction is sometimes taken into account before a release, but if discharges are needed they will be blown into the atmosphere even if the wind is blowing inland toward residents.
Surfers might be interested to know that last year radioactive liquids were dumped into the ocean for a total of 550 hours. Wouldn’t it be nice if Edison would announce in advance on which days they are doing their ocean dumping? Who would want to be surfing anywhere near ocean releases? It is curious that surfers are alarmed by a highway going near Trestles but they don’t seem upset about nuclear waste being dumped into the ocean.
The NAS focus on the health dangers of radiation is nothing new. Danger posed by radiation has been a major concern of scientists, health officials, and the public ever since the dawn of the atomic era. Debate about cancer possibly caused by living or working near nuclear facilities has been going on for more than a half-century.
Many may remember the famous St. Louis baby tooth study which begun in 1958 by the Citizens Committee for Nuclear Information. Over 85,000 baby teeth were donated from children who lived downwind from the nuclear tests being done at the Nevada test range. The analysis discovered Strontium 90 and the alarming results led to the nuclear test ban treaty.
For many decades, officials in the government and the nuclear industry denied dangers posed by radiation, covered up evidence, and lied to the public. But evidence mounted and finally in October of 1990 Congress established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to apologize and to compensate those who died or got cancer from radiation exposure.
To date, compensation totaling $1.4 billion has been awarded to 21,679 people. Today it is settled science that ionizing radiation can cause death or a host of serious medical problems.
When people began to worry if those living near NPP might be getting cancer from accidental or deliberate radiation releases, baby tooth research resumed in the late 1990s with the formation of a citizens group called the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) often referred to as the Tooth Fairy Project.
With the help of Alec Baldwin and Christie Brinkley, the STAR Foundation (Standing for Truth About Radiation) was formed.
It collected donations to buy a $75,000 Perkin-Elmer 1220-003 liquid scintillation counter, a state of the art machine at the time for measuring low doses of radioactivity. Worried parents went out and collected over a thousand baby teeth and quickly found alarming trends. For example, the 250 baby teeth collected near the Indian Point Nuclear Plant on the Hudson River near New York City had 36% more Strontium 90 than those collected elsewhere in New York state.
The teeth from children born in the 1990s (after the reactors had been operating for decades) had 56% more Strontium 90 compared to teeth collected in the 1980s. Many other results are found in a book by Joseph Mangano called “Radioactive Baby Teth: TheCancer Link.” Some have suggested that a baby tooth project ought to be started in towns near San Onofre.
(Aside: Many took notice that the 9/11 hijackers flew right over Indian Point reactors on their way to the World Trade Center. Had they crashed into Indian Point instead, the catastrophe could have dwarfed anything that happened at the World Trade Center.
And it is no secret that San Onofre is considered a prime target because of easy access from the ocean, from Interstate 5, or from the public park that surrounds it. Novels have been written about such possible scenarios.)
If there are so many questions about the safety of living near a NPP, why does the NRC allow these plants to be built in highly populated areas? The answer is that the NRC continues to rely upon a 1990 study by the National Cancer Institute (Jablon, et al, “Cancer in populations living near nuclear facilities”) which failed to find a connection.
It is unsettling that the NRC would rely on a study which shows no effect when it is well known in science that failure to discover an effect never proves there is no effect.
This study is now outdated and is known to contains many flaws. For example it studied only cancer deaths, not cancer cases, and it counted where people died rather than where they lived or worked. It did not study migration in and out of areas, and the data were analyzed by counties.
Deaths in Oceanside, for example, would be averaged with deaths in Chula Vista since they are both in San Diego County. No distinction would have been made between San Clemente, a couple miles from San Onofre, with Fullerton, 40 miles away. No wonder they failed to find any effects.
Another serious flaw was the failure to focus on age. It is known that children are 15-20 times more vulnerable to radiation, and the human fetus is even more sensitive (30-50 times more vulnerable).
Some of the most worrisome studies are those recently conducted in Europe. Many of the confounds of earlier studies were eliminated and special emphasis was placed on children. One study in France and another in Germany found that children living near normally operating nuclear power plants were twice as likely to get childhood leukemia.
Since there haven’t been any such studies recently in the U.S., we are left with anecdotes and public health statistics which are not organized according to distance from nuclear reactors.
People in medical professions tell about teen girls with breast cancer, young men with prostate cancer, surfers with cancer, children with leukemia, and almost everyone knows someone who has some form of cancer. The problem is that it is very difficult to pinpoint exactly where the cancer came from.
The effects of radiation are cumulative, and concentrations can mount for those who are exposed year after year and decade after decade. Everyone already gets some radiation from the environment and from medical procedures. Medical experts say that a single CT scan or MRI (these tests use ionizing radiation) are probably safe, but they warn against repeating such tests.
It all adds up over a life time, and additional radiation from nuclear reactors can be worrisome. The rock bottom last thing we need in this area is more cancer-causing radiation.
Why does the NRC allow any radiation emissions at all? The answer is that nuclear power reactors are leaky and dirty devices which cannot operate cleanly. Radioactive dust and “fuel fleas” accumulate inside the “hot” areas of the plant and need to be collected and blown out. Just what NPP operators like Edison are allowed to discharge is specified in the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 20, Appendix B. Operators are bound by the NRC procedure called ALARA (“As Low As Reasonably Allowable”).
ALARA sounds ALARMING. For dose tolerance, the NRC ignores women, children, and the human fetus. Instead, it bases everything on the standard statistical reference man. Thus, the average human being , created in 1974, is a Western European male 5’7” high, 170 lbs. and in his 20s. How convenient to pick the “person” least likely to get cancer from radiation.
Serious research about whether living near nuclear power plants is long overdue, but some are suspicious of any research under the control of the NRC. The official NRC motto is “Protecting People and the Environment,” but everyone knows its main interest is promoting nuclear power. No surprise: this powerful bureaucracy is funded by the nuclear industry. The NRC is the poster child for regulatory capture: an industry that controls the agency which is supposed to regulate it.
People began to place some hope in the NRC when Chairman Jaczko made a special trip to San Onofre in April to inspect the radiation leaks which forced the plant to close back in January. Edison tried to do an end run around the NRC by not disclosing the design changes intended to make the steam generators turn out more power (and more profit).
These new generators have failed, and when Edison suggested they might reopen the crippled plant in June, Chairman Jaczko promptly scolded them and told them that nothing would be allowed to reopen until the root cause of the failures are found and fixed. After four months, Edison has not figured out the design flaw or how to fix it. If they have figured it out, they are not disclosing it. The failed new generators cost ratepayers about 700 hundred million dollars.
Chairman Jaczko was the first NRC commissioner in decades to be seriously interested in public safety. Unfortunately he was recently outed, forced out of office by powerful pro-nuke forces including local Congressman Darrell Issa.
The fate of the proposed cancer study will be decided later this year by the NRC. Some say that the NRC wants a study which is designed to fail so they can continue to boast that radiation is harmless. Others say that the NRC will kill the study if they suspect that data might show that living near a NPP might cause cancer.
A lot is at stake for the nuclear industry, but a lot more is at stake for the people who are unlucky enough to have one of the 104 U.S. nuclear reactors in their backyard. Proponents of nuclear power have tried to use scare tactics suggesting we need to take risks because otherwise we can’t run our air conditioners at full blast. But energy officials have come out and said that there is plenty of excess of energy without San Onofre.
People throughout the south land are beginning to realize that it is in everyone’s interest to keep the plant shut and never allow it to open again. Stay tuned. What happens with San Onofre might be the harbinger of what will happen with nuclear power everywhere.