2010/03/19: Duluth News Tribune: John LaForge: Nukes not safe at any speed

An opinion column by John LaForge of Nukewatch, a WNPJ member group in Luck, Wisconsin:

Boosters of nuclear power often claim reactors “operate safely.”It’s easy to prove this false.

Every government agency that regulates radiation exposure agrees that no matter how small, there is no safe dose. This “linear no threshold” standard declares that any and all radiation poses some risk of causing cancer.

“There is no level below which we can say an exposure poses no risk,” the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency stated in 1993. “Radiation is a carcinogen. It may also cause other adverse health effects, including genetic defects in the children of exposed parents or mental retardation in the children of mothers exposed during pregnancy.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission warns that “any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect.” The National Council on Radiation Protection notes that “every increment of radiation exposure produces an incremental increase in the risk of cancer.”

Radioactive contamination of the environment is unsafe because people working at reactors, or living nearby or downwind, are exposed to the radiation dispersed.

Many people don’t know that radioactive contamination of water, air and soil occurs every day as a result of normal reactor operations. Reactors cannot operate without regular, permitted — as well as accidental and prohibited — releases of radioactively contaminated water and gas. Radio-isotopes are vented nonstop to control the pressure, temperature and humidity inside reactors and to keep radiation levels from exceeding exposure limits for workers inside.

Worker exposure is a necessary evil, allowed under statute. But all exposure is unsafe and increases the risk of cancer.

Wisconsin’s reactors at Point Beach and Kewaunee release radiation like the rest, and they have a poor record of operations compared to 101 others in the U.S.

Only four “Red Findings” — the most serious failure notice — have been issued in the history of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Two of the four went to Point Beach. One included a $325,000 fine for 16 safety violations, including from a potentially catastrophic May 1996 explosion of hydrogen gas inside a loaded radioactive waste cask. The Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Point Beach operators were “inattentive to their duties,” were “starting up a power unit while one of its safety systems was inoperable,” and failed to install “the required number of cooling pumps.”

Regarding human exposures, Kewaunee and Point Beach both have contaminated surface water and groundwater with radioactive releases — some unlawful. In 1975, Point Beach Unit 1 leaked approximately 10,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated water, which flowed into a retention pond and from there into groundwater. In 1997, another 10,000 gallons of radioactive water ran from Unit 1, eventually into Lake Michigan. That year, Unit 2 had a leaking discharge pipe that contaminated a stream and Lake Michigan. In 2005, a Point Beach worker was convicted in federal court of knowingly making false written statements to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

In 2006, Kewaunee reactor workers found radioactive tritium in groundwater. The rate of the leak was unknown, as was its source, but operators were investigating. Groundwater cannot be decontaminated and tritium persists in the ecosystem for 120 years.

Minnesota’s Prairie Island has had radiation accidents, too. In May 2006, 110 employees inhaled radioactive iodine-131 gas that had spewed into their work area. A Nuclear Regulatory Commission spokesman who knows better told the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, “The exposure was small and did not have any health and safety consequence.”

 

The bioaccumulation of radioactive pollution from nuclear power is a persistent threat to human health, especially when mixed into untested cocktails with some of the 75,000 toxic chemicals that often are poured, sprayed, vented or dumped into our soil, air and water.

Since nuclear reactors can’t operate without exposing us to radiation, none are safe, just permitted. All expose workers and the public to increased risks of cancer.

John LaForge of Luck, Wis., is a native Duluthian and a staff member for 18 years for the independent nuclear power and weapons watchdog group Nukewatch, for which he edits a quarterly newsletter.