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#336 - So Far, A Terrible Year For Nuclear Power, 05-May-1993

The civilian nuclear power industry has been hammered relentlessly by
bad news throughout 1993.

"Safe" Doses of Radiation Cause Cancer

Researchers re-examined health records of 8318 white male workers at
Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and confirmed what an earlier
study had shown: that the occurrence of leukemia is 63 percent higher
among atomic workers at the plant than among average U.S. white males.
[1] Oak Ridge was established in Tennessee in 1943 to develop plutonium
for A-bombs. The study has caused consternation throughout the nuclear
industry because the vast majority of ORNL workers were exposed to
levels far below those considered dangerous today. (See RHWN #244.)

The new study confirms three important conclusions: that one rem (1000
millirems) of gamma radiation exposure caused a 5 percent increase in
the risk of cancer among workers; that the cancer risk from low levels
of radiation is about 10 times greater than had previously been deduced
from observation of radiation victims in Japanese cities bombed during
WW II; and that low doses of radiation delivered over a long period of
time seem to be more efficient at causing cancer than higher doses
delivered during a short period of time. (Nuclear advocates have long
maintained that the opposite was true, that low doses of radioactivity
delivered over many years were benign, or perhaps even good for you--a
theory called hormesis.) (Rems are units of radiation exposure; a
millirem is 1/1000 of a rem.)

All of these conclusions are very bad news for the nuclear industry.
They indicate that today's permissible radiation standards are
dangerously lax.

The median cumulative dose to workers at ORNL was 140 millirems,
meaning half the workers received more than that and half received less
during their entire working life at ORNL. The mean (average) cumulative
dose was 1.73 rems (1730 millirems).

According to U.S. EPA, medical radiation workers receive a dose of 150
millirems EACH YEAR; flight crews average 170 millirems EACH YEAR;
industrial radiographers average 430 millirems EACH YEAR. Workers at
nuclear power plants average 650 millirems EACH YEAR.[2] Thus an
average worker at a nuclear power plant receives as much radiation in 3
years (1950 millirems) as the average ORNL worker received during all
his or her working years.

Reducing worker exposures at nuclear plants would be very costly,
perhaps prohibitively costly.

Brits Lower Permissible Exposure Standards

The British National Radiological Protection Board (NRPB) in April
officially lowered the permissible amount of radiation exposure for
atomic workers and for the public in the UK, according to the LONDON
GUARDIAN.[3] Reacting to 1980s data from A-bomb victims in Japanese
cities showing that radiation is more dangerous than previously
supposed, the NRPB reduced permissible annual exposures for workers to
2 rem from the previous 5 rem. The U.S. continues to allow radiation
exposures of 5 rem per year for atomic workers, a guideline established
in 1956, though most exposures average just a little over 0.5 rem per
year.

The NRPB also reduced the permissible exposure to the British public
from any one source to 33 millirems per year. The U.S. continues to
allow the public to be exposed to 100 millirems each year from any
single source. Natural background exposes most people (at sea level) to
about 100 millirems per year, so the U.S. standard allows any single
source (such as a nuclear power plant) to double the radiation exposure
of members of the general public.

The British tightening of standards will increase pressure to lower
U.S. standards. In the past, U.S. officials have sometimes been able to
hold out for a decade in the face of diminishing radiation standards
worldwide, but eventually the pressure becomes too great and U.S.
nuclear standards come into line. The only argument against tight
standards is that they are expensive for the nuclear industry.

Chernobyl Cancers Appear Unexpectedly

In late April, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced new
findings of thyroid cancer among children affected by radiation
released during the fire at Chernobyl in the Soviet Union April 26,
1986.[4] The agency reported that 168 cases of thyroid cancer have
occurred in children in Belarus since the disaster. During the seven
years prior to the blast, only seven cases of thyroid cancer had
occurred in children in that area. When these findings were first
published in September, 1992, a team of five World Health Organization
radiation scientists said, "We believe that experience in Belarus
suggests that the consequences to the human thyroid, especially in
fetuses and young children, of the carcinogenic effects of radioactive
fallout is much greater than previously thought." The cancers started
appearing in 1990, only 4 years after the Chernobyl accident.
Previously scientists had believed cancer developed only after a delay
much greater than 4 years. In addition, the thyroid cancers in children
in Belarus were much more aggressive than thyroid cancers had
previously appeared to be; they spread to the lungs and elsewhere with
deadly speed.[5] (An optimistic report by the U.S. Department of Energy
had appeared in SCIENCE magazine in late 1988 saying that perhaps zero
cancers would result from the Chernobyl disaster.)[6]

Dismantling Reactors is Shockingly Expensive

The WALL STREET JOURNAL reported in January that dismantling a nuclear
reactor in Colorado is costing more that the plant originally cost to
build.[7] The Fort St. Vrain reactor is relatively small as reactors go
(330 megawatts, about one-sixth the size of a large reactor); it cost
$224 million to build, but is costing $333 million to dismantle.

The story at Fort St. Vrain, 35 miles north of Denver, is particularly
important because the reactor is of an advanced design now being touted
as "inherently safe," an example of what the "next generation" of
reactors will be like. It is cooled by helium instead of water and
proponents say its atomic fuel cannot "melt down" (as happened at
Chernobyl and at Three Mile Island) and therefore the reactor is
"inherently safe."

Indeed the reactor at Fort St. Vrain had an admirable safety record. No
accidents, no unusual radiation leaks, no meltdowns. But there was such
a long list of breakdowns and costly repairs that the plant's owners
shut it down for good after only 10 years of operation. The company
figures the plant operated only 15 percent of the time. "Our nuclear
plant didn't work," says Mark Stutz, a spokesperson for Public Service
Co. of Colorado, the owner.

After they shut the plant, owners discovered the really bad news:
taking the plant apart is difficult, dangerous and exceedingly costly.
The plant has been such a nightmare that descendants of the plant's
namesake, 1830s pioneer Marcellin St. Vrain, asked that the plant be
called something else, to save the family from embarrassment.

The other 110 operating reactors in the U.S. are facing high shutdown
costs; 25 percent of them are also facing early closure in the next few
years because they are too expensive to run profitably, says the WALL
STREET JOURNAL.

The owners of these plants are "utterly unprepared" to pay the high
costs of dismantling, says the WALL STREET JOURNAL, predicting decades-
long fights between utility customers and utility shareholders over who
must pay the huge bills.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the federal government's safety
watchdog for the nuclear industry, is holding a series of hearings
around the country right now, trying to establish levels of local
radiation that will be "acceptable" after a plant is dismantled. The
higher the acceptable radiation levels, the cheaper the dismantling job
will be. This is the NRC's latest attempt to define levels of radiation
that are "below regulatory concern" (BRC). On earlier BRC attempts, see
RHWN #183 and #185. To learn more, phone NRC at (301) 504-2240 and
request their paper en-titled, "Proposed Rulemaking to Establish
Radiological Criteria for Decommissioning: Issues for Discussion at
Workshops," or write Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory
Commission, Washington, DC 20555.

Citizens Aim to Stop Ohio Nuke's Air Emissions

After four leaking fuel bundles were discovered at the Perry nuclear
power plant in Ohio in January, local citizens announced they'll press
for a referendum November 2, 1993, to ban the release of radioactive
air pollution from the Perry plant. Such a ban would very likely
require the plant to close. The 1250 megawatt plant opened in 1986.

Such a referendum might set a powerful precedent, establishing that air
and water belong to the public and that local laws can prohibit
polluters from using them as waste dumps.[8]

AND THE YEAR ISN'T YET HALF OVER

--Peter Montague

=====

[1] Steve Wing and others, "Job Factors, Radiation and Cancer Mortality
at Oak Ridge National Laboratory: Follow-Up Through 1984," AMERICAN
JOURNAL OF INDUSTRIAL MEDICINE Vol. 23 (1993), pgs. 265-279. See also,
"Science," ENVIRONMENTAL SCIENCE & TECHNOLOGY Vol. 27 (1993), pg. 583.

[2] Catherine Caufield, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES; CHRONICLES OF THE RADIATION
AGE (NY: Harper & Row, 1989), pg. 180.

[3] Tim Radford, "Safe Radiation Dose Levels Cut," GUARDIAN April 27,
1993, pg. 5.

[4] Alexander G. Higgins, "U.N. Agency: People in Danger Zone Remain
Wary," Associated Press wire story April 25, 1993. See also World
Health Organization Press Release WHO/32 (Geneva, Switzerland: World
Health Organization Office of Information, April 23, 1993); in
Washington, D.C., phone (202) 861-3458.

[5] See letters to the editor from Vasili S. Kazakov, and Keith
Beverstock (of WHO) in NATURE Vol. 359 (September 3, 1992), pgs. 21 and
22. See also Richard L. Hudson, "Technology & Health: Child Cancers
Found to Rise Near Chernobyl; Study Shows Radioactivity May Have Worse
Effects Than Many Expected," WALL STREET JOURNAL September 3, 1992.

[6] Lynn R. Anspaugh and others, "The Global Impact of the Chernobyl
Reactor Accident," SCIENCE Vol. 242 (December 16, 1988), pgs. 1513-
1519, said (pg. 1518), "We reiterate that these risk estimates do not
rule out zero as a possibility."

[7] Robert Johnson and Ann de Rouffignac, "Closing Costs: Nuclear
Utilities Face Immense Expenses In Dismantling Plants," WALL STREET
JOURNAL January 25, 1993.

[8] Perry data from Greenwire, the Daily Excutive Briefing on the
Environment [phone (703) 237-5130]; story #6, January 25, 1993; story
#2, February 19, 1993; story #15, March 25, 1993.

Descriptor terms: oak ridge, tn; radiation; standards; cancer;
hormesis; occupational safety and health; nuclear power; nuclear
safety; uk; great britain; british national radiological protection
board; worker safety; background radiation; chernobyl; belarus; thyroid
cancer; childhood cancer; world health organization; doe;
decommissioning; fort st vrain reactor; co; who; inherently safe; brc;
oh; high temperature gas cooled reactors; leaks; air pollution;
referendums; regulation; citizen activism;