Radiation: Children at Risk

by Russell Mokhiber

Multinational Monitor magazine, June 2000


Infant death rates near five U.S. nuclear plants dropped immediately and dramatically after the reactors closed, a recent study shows.

Moreover, dramatic decreases in childhood cancer cases and deaths from birth defects, which are affected by radiation exposure, occurred near one of the closed reactors.

The study suggests that the health of 42 million people in the United States who live downwind and within 50 miles of a nuclear plant may be affected by these reactors, according to the study's author, Joseph Magnano.

The study was conducted by the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project and published in the spring issue of the scientific journal Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology.

At a press conference in Washington, D.C., model Christie Brinkley joined Representative Michael Forbes, D-New York, and others in calling upon the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to consider whether adverse health effects are associated with nuclear plant operations before renewing nuclear power plant licenses.

Brinkley is a board member of the STAR (Standing for Truth About Radiation) Foundation, a group formed in 1997 by concerned Long Island residents.

"As a mother of young children who lives near nuclear facilities, I worry daily that radiation from these plants may be deadly to our children," Brinkley said. "So far, the federal government has buried its head in the sand. If closing the nuclear power plants was not responsible for the decline in infant deaths, what was?"

The nuclear industry condemned the press conference as "another misleading instance of science by celebrity."

In a one-page rebuttal to the study, the Nuclear Energy Institute said that the annual exposure to the nearest resident from a U.S. nuclear power plant has been less than one millirem, compared to the annual average exposure from nature of 300 millirem.

And the industry cited a March 1991 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association which examined more than 900,000 cancer deaths using county mortality records collected from 1950 to 1984.

Dr. John Boice, who conducted that study, said that "from the data at hand, there was no convincing evidence of any increased risk of death from any of the cancers we surveyed due to living near nuclear facilities."

The NRC does not consider the potential adverse health effects of radioactive emissions when evaluating license renewal applications.

Owners of 28 nuclear reactors at 17 nuclear facilities around the country are scheduled to seek license renewals by 2003. The NRC has never voluntarily studied the link between radioactive emissions from nuclear plants and patterns of cancer.

Mangnano, the study's author and a research associate at the Radiation and Public Health Project, examined infant death rates in counties within 50 miles and in the prevailing wind direction of five reactors: Fort St. Vrain (located near Denver, Colorado), LaCrosse (near LaCrosse, Wisconsin), Millstone/Haddam Neck (near New London, Connecticut), Rancho Seco (near Sacramento, California) and Trojan (near Portland, Oregon).

In the first two years after the reactors closed, infant death rates in the downwind counties under 40 miles from the plants fell 15 to 20 percent from the previous two years, compared to an average U.S. decline of just 6 percent between 1985 and 1996. In each of the five areas studied, no other nuclear reactor operated within 70 miles of the closed reactor, essentially creating a "nuclear-free zone."

The study detailed the plunges in newly diagnosed leukemia and cancer cases and birth defect deaths in children under five years in the four-county local area downwind from Rancho Seco. This decline has continued through the first seven years after the

June 1989 closing. In contrast, the local infant death rate rose in the two years after Rancho Seco began operations in 1974.

"This article is the first to document improvements in health after a nuclear plant closes," says Mangano. "It supports many other studies showing elevated childhood cancer near operating reactors. The federal government allows nuclear reactors to emit a certain level of radiation, saying that the amount is too low to result in adverse local health effects. However, this study clearly calls that assumption into question, as do other studies."

The press conference was held on the fourteenth anniversary of the catastrophic accident at the Chernobyl nuclear power reactor. Increased infant cancer and death rates after Chernobyl have been documented, not just in the former Soviet Union, but in Western Europe and the United States, where Chernobyl fallout levels were deemed by regulators to be within safe limits.

"On this day in particular, which is the fourteenth anniversary of the Chernobyl disaster in Russia, we need to address the very real and legitimate concerns of people who live near nuclear reactors," said Forbes, whose eastern Long Island district lies across the Long Island Sound from Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Connecticut. "At the very least, the government has a responsibility to determine whether emissions from these plants are harming people."

U.S. nuclear plants seeking relicensing this year include Oconee Nuclear Station in northwest South Carolina, Arkansas Nuclear One in Russellville, Arkansas, Edwin I. Hatch in southern Georgia, and Turkey Point near Miami, Florida.

In 2001, plants expected to seek relicensing include Catawba, which lies on the border between North Carolina and South Carolina, North Anna, located near Fredericksburg, Virginia, Surry, near Virginia Beach, Virginia, and Peach Bottom, located near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Recently, the government approved a license renewal application for Calvert Cliffs, near Baltimore.

For some of those who live near reactors, the government's inaction has been maddening. Randy Snell, a New York resident who lives near the Brookhaven National Laboratory (BNL), learned several years ago that his 8-year-old daughter had developed a rare soft tissue cancer called rhabdomyosarcoma.

Snell has uncovered 19 other cases of the same rare cancer in Suffolk County. In one area near BNL, the rate of this cancer in young children since 1994 is 15 times the national average.

"I have no doubt that radiation from nuclear reactors sickens people who live nearby," Snell says. "What is really disheartening, though, is that state and federal public health agencies haven't lifted a finger to confirm the link between Brookhaven and all these rare child cancers. I hope this study forces them to act."

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