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#543 - A Gloomy Year For Nuclear Power, 23-Apr-1997

The nuclear power industry is having another bad year.

** A study published in January in ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES (a
federal government journal) concludes that people who lived near the
Three Mile Island (TMI) nuclear plant in Pennsylvania in 1979 are more
likely to get lung cancer, leukemia and all cancers combined, compared
to people living further from the plant.[1] The TMI nuclear reactor
released radioactivity into the surrounding air in March, 1979 during a
loss-of-coolant accident that crippled the plant. A 1990 study had
concluded that certain cancers were occurring among nearby residents at
unusually high rates, but that radiation released during the accident
was probably not the cause.[2] The latest study, by Stephen Wing and
others, says those rising cancer rates WERE caused by radiation.[3]

The nuclear power corporations are working overtime to discredit Wing
and the other authors of the new study. The industry's attacks on Wing
are deflecting attention away from the real issue: both the 1990 study
and the 1997 study agree that cancers are occurring at unusually high
rates among people who lived near the TMI nuclear reactor in 1979.
Whether radiation released during the accident caused these cancers, or
whether the TMI plant caused them in some other way is an interesting
sidelight, but is not the central issue.

After the authors of the 1990 study concluded that radiation released
during the 1979 accident probably wasn't causing the cancer increases
near TMI, they did a second study. They found that the cancers might
have been caused by accident-related stress.[4]

Stress is definitely known to damage the immune system, and a damaged
immune system may fail to prevent cancers.[5] If your immune system is
damaged, even routine low-level releases of radioactive gases from a
nearby nuclear power plant might be sufficient to cause cancers.

There was plenty of reason to feel stress back in 1979 if you lived
within 100 miles of TMI. Shortly after the initial accident, government
and industry officials got caught telling the public a series of bald-
faced lies, compounding the public's initial distress. Meanwhile,
hydrogen gas was building up inside the TMI containment vessel and
reputable scientists were taking bets on whether it would explode and
breach the containment, releasing more radioactivity. Meanwhile, a hot,
heavy mass of melted fuel was beginning to burn its way through the
bottom of the reactor, threatening to contact the soil below and
perhaps set off a steam explosion. Either of these scenarios could have
released large quantities of radiation into the surrounding

Sensibly, the governor of Pennsylvania evacuated women and children
within a 5-mile radius of the plant. Many local people never fully
recovered from the whole experience and never regained trust in
officialdom as the damaged reactor's twin was put into service. Some
local people were studied years later and, sure enough, they registered
high stress levels at least five years after the accident.[7]

So take your choice. Cancers are increased among people who were living
near TMI when the accident occurred. That much is known and is not in
dispute. Maybe radiation released during the accident caused the
cancers. Or maybe the very real threats of a hydrogen explosion and a
full-scale meltdown (the "China syndrome") worried people sick. Either
way, TMI will not soon be forgotten.

** Two fires occurred on the same day at a nuclear fuel reprocessing
plant in Tokai, Japan March 11, 1997, 70 miles from Tokyo. According to
the NEW YORK TIMES the Tokai plant contains 4.4 tons of plutonium. One
fire started at 10 a.m. and was quickly snuffed out, authorities said.
However, 10 hours later a second fired erupted, accompanied by an
explosion that blew out all the windows and one of the doors in the
concrete building, exposing at least 30 workers to radioactivity and

releasing radiation into the atmosphere.[8,9] Radioactive materials
from the plant, including plutonium, were detected 23 miles away. A
citizens watchdog group in Tokyo reported that radioactive iodine-129
was released as well.[10] Radioactive iodine tends to accumulate in the
thyroid gland of humans, where it can cause cancer.

Japan produces 34% of its electricity using 51 nuclear power plants.

At the time of the Tokai fires and explosion, Japan's state-run nuclear
industry was under a cloud; a serious accident in December, 1995, had
closed the Monju experimental fast-breeder reactor. The Monju plant,
220 miles from Tokyo, was supposed to demonstrate that a nuclear plant
could safely and affordably "breed" plutonium fuel for other nuclear
power plants. However, a leak in the liquid sodium coolant system in
December, 1995, closed the demonstration plant, bringing disgrace upon
the government corporation that ran it --the same corporation that
operates the Tokai plant.

According to the NEW YORK TIMES, "The Government-run nuclear energy
company was harshly criticized for its slow response to the Monju
accident and for its attempt to cover it up. The company's top
executive was replaced, safety manuals were revised and other reforms
were supposedly introduced. But many of the same types of mistakes were
made in the Tokai accident."[8] The TIMES said of the Tokai fires and
explosion, "A seeming comedy of errors in responding to the fire and
informing the public was more disturbing to some than the amount of
radiation released."[8]

** On February 2, 1997, two accidents occurred within 24 hours at the
Sellafield nuclear complex in Cumbria, England, just across the Irish
sea from Ireland. Irish authorities summoned the British ambassador to
send a formal message "not to proceed" with the creation of a nuclear
waste dump at Sellafield. In the first accident February 2nd, six
workers were "slightly contaminated" at the Sellafield fuel
reprocessing plant. Less than 24 hours later, radioactive liquids
spilled from a storage tank. The NEW YORK TIMES reported February 8
that, "A scientists' report earlier this week indicated that
radioactive material from the proposed underground waste storage site
at Sellafield could seep into the Irish sea."[11]

Other problems

Frightening accidents are not the only problems plaguing the nuclear
power industry. Plutonium can be recovered from the highly-radioactive
waste created by a nuclear plant. The plutonium can then be fashioned
into an atomic bomb. The U.S. turned its back on "waste
reprocessing" (to extract plutonium) 20 years ago, but other nations
such as Japan and Britain have not.

Without the plutonium-extraction step, nuclear waste must be kept
somewhere "safe" for an eternity (240,000 years) --something humans
have never done before. Modern humans (HOMO SAPIENS) only appeared on
Earth 100,000 years ago, so securing deadly wastes for 240,000 years is
a novel idea, to say the least.

** February 6, 1997, U.S. authorities protested Russia's announced plan
to sell two nuclear reactors to India. The U.S. says it fears India
wants the reactors to make atomic bombs. India surprised the world by
exploding a plutonium bomb in 1974, using plutonium scavenged from a
research reactor supplied by Canada. India and Pakistan are bitter
enemies and have fought three wars since 1947. Indian officials say
they need the reactors to generate electric power and the U.S. is
imposing a colonialist double standard.

The Russians had previously announced plans to sell a reactor to Iran,
a country that definitely wants a bomb, U.S. officials say.[12]

Residents of Florida are expressing concern because Russia has said it
wants to help Cuba acquire a nuclear power reactor. Floridians 90 miles
from Cuba aren't worried about atomic bombs, but they fear that the
Russian reactor may not be safe.[12]

The Russians say they can't afford to worry about the worldwide
proliferation of nuclear weapons --they need to sell reactors to raise
cash. Many Russian nuclear engineers have not been paid in months. Last
December, more than a dozen employees at a St. Petersburg nuclear power
plant seized the reactor's control room and threatened to shut down the
plant if they weren't paid[12] --inadvertently suggesting a new kind of
instability that can plague nuclear power technology.

** Extreme poverty has driven North Korea to agree to take radioactive
waste from Taiwan. Taiwanese authorities have not been able to overcome
local opposition to the siting of a nuclear waste dump, so they have
signed a contract with North Korea to take 200,000 barrels of their
nuclear waste at $1135 per barrel. This has set off alarm bells in
South Korea, 40 miles from the chosen disposal site. The waste would
reportedly be buried in old coal mines, and South Korea is concerned
about possible water pollution.[13]

Japan has reportedly been considering paying the Marshall Islands to
take Japan's radioactive waste, but such talk created political
opposition among Marshall Islanders and Japan backed off.[13]

** In Germany March 5, 1997, nuclear waste from two German power plants
and a French reprocessing plant were trucked 12 miles from a railway
station at Dannenburg to the Gorleben waste burial site in northern
Germany, setting off huge protests. Five thousand demonstrators set up
blockades to stop the trucks, which were carrying six 90-ton containers
of intensely radioactive spent fuel rods. German police had to organize
what the NEW YORK TIMES called "Germany's largest postwar security
operation" to protect the trucks.[14]

It seems clear that wherever nuclear power technology gains a foothold,
serious trouble follows close behind.

--Peter Montague (National Writers Union, UAW Local 1981/AFL-CIO)


[1] Steve Wing and others, "A Reevaluation of Cancer Incidence Near the
Three Mile Island Nuclear Plant: The Collision of Evidence and
(January 1997), pgs. 52-57.

[2] Maureen C. Hatch and others, "Cancer Near the Three Mile Island
Nuclear Plant: Radiation Emissions," AMERICAN JOURNAL OF EPIDEMIOLOGY
Vol. 132, No. 3 (September 1990), pgs. 397-412.

[3] "Revisiting Three Miles Island," ENVIRONMENTAL HEALTH PERSPECTIVES
Vol. 105, No. 1 (January 1997), pgs. 22-23. And see: Maureen Hatch and
others, "Comments on 'A Reevaluation of Cancer Incidence Near the Three
105, No. 1 (January 1997), pg. 12.

[4] Maureen C. Hatch and others, "Cancer Rates after the Three Mile
Island Nuclear Accident and Proximity of Residence to the Plant,"
AMERICAN JOURNAL OF PUBLIC HEALTH Vol. 81, No. 6 (June 1991), pgs. 719-

(New York: Oxford University Press, 1995). See especially chapter 8.

MILE ISLAND (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979).

[7] Evelyn J. Bromet and others, "Long-term Mental Health Consequences
of the Accident at Three Mile Island," INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF MENTAL
HEALTH Vol. 19, No. 2 (1990), pgs. 48-60.

[8] Andrew Pollack, "After Accident, Japan Rethinks Its Nuclear Hopes,"
NEW YORK TIMES March 25, 1997, pg. 8.

[9] Associated Press, "2 Fires Break Out at Nuclear Site in Japan," NEW
YORK TIMES March 12, 1997, pg. A4.

[10] Citizens' Nuclear Information Center, "Tokai Reprocessing Plant
Suffers Fire After Explosion," press release dated March 11, 1997.
Citizens' Nuclear Information Center is located in Tokyo, Japan. They
can be reached by phone: 03-5330-9520; by fax: 03-5330-9530; and by E-
mail: cnic-jp@po.iijnet.or.jp.

[11] Reuters, "Irish Protest 2 Accidents at British Nuclear Plant," NEW
YORK TIMES February 8, 1997, pg. A5.

[12] Michael R. Gordon, "Russia Selling Atomic Plants to India; U.S.
Protests Deal," NEW YORK TIMES February 6, 1997, pg. A3.

[13] Sheryl Wudunn, "North Korea Agrees to Take Taiwan Atom Waste for
Cash," NEW YORK TIMES February 7, 1997, pg. 1.

[14] Reuters, "German Nuclear Waste Arrives to Big Protests," NEW YORK
TIMES, March 6, 1997, pg. A11.


In Rachel's #540 and #541 we attributed quotations incorrectly to
Harriet Hardy; they were actually quotations from Alice Hamilton of
Harvard University.

In Rachel's #542, we gave an incorrect address for WASTE NOT; the
street is Judson, not Hudson.

Descriptor terms: nuclear power; tokai, japan; sellafield; england;
reprocessing; plutonium; tmi; pennsylvania; radiation; stress; immune
system damage; nuclear weapons; a-bomb; corrections; cancer; plutonium;
iodine-129; coverups; ireland; proliferation; india; russia; iran;
cuba; north korea; taiwan; radioactive waste; japan; marshall islands;
germany; gorleben;