Health Threat of Perry Nuclear Power Plant Should Be Studied

Posted by Joseph J. Mangano April 05, 2009

Joseph J. Mangano is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.

A portion of Cleveland's electricity is generated at the Perry nuclear power plant, 35 miles northeast of the city. Plant owner FirstEnergy is seeking government approval to extend Perry's license, so it can operate until 2046.
Although Perry is just 22 years old, its parts are already aging and corroding. FirstEnergy's proposal would keep Perry going to the 60-year mark, raising health concerns.
The biggest concern is a meltdown. Perry, like all reactors, produces huge amounts of radioactive waste, equivalent to several hundred Hiroshima bombs, and must store it at the site. The plan to send waste to a permanent repository in Nevada is bogged down in legal challenges, meaning Perry may be stuck with this dangerous material forever.
Radioactive waste must be stored in constantly cooled pools of water. Any loss of cooling water would result in a large meltdown, and huge amounts of poison would be released into the air, and propelled by winds. Safe evacuation from the Greater Cleveland area would be impossible, and the suffering would be immense.
Acute radiation poisoning is marked by a horrible combination of symptoms, including extreme weakness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, internal bleeding, hair loss and skin rashes. A 1982 federal report estimated that 185,500 local residents would be stricken after a meltdown at Perry.
The possibility of a meltdown is all too real, as the Chernobyl and Three Mile Island disasters demonstrated. Perry has had "near miss" accidents, one in 1993 and two in 2003. As a reactor like Perry ages and its parts corrode, the potential for a meltdown from mechanical failure increases.
But a meltdown may not be necessary for a reactor to harm people. Although most radioactive gases and particles in a reactor are captured as waste, a portion must be released into air and water. More than 100 separate chemicals, produced only when nuclear weapons explode and nuclear reactors operate, thus enter the environment.
These chemicals enter human bodies by breathing and the food chain, and seek out different organs. Cesium-137 goes to the muscles and soft tissues. Iodine-131 enters the thyroid gland. Strontium-90 attaches to bone. Each kills and injures healthy cells, raising cancer risk, and is especially harmful to infants and children. Federal data suggest that emission levels from Perry are higher than most U.S. reactors.
The cancer rate in Lake County, where the Perry plant is located, has been roughly equal to the U.S. rate for years. But since the mid-1990s, the rate has risen, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and is now 12 percent above the national level. Of the 16 most common cancers, the Lake County rate exceeds the U.S. rate in 14. Nearly 600 county residents die of cancer each year.
Lake's child cancer death rate rose 54 percent since Perry began operating, compared to a 27 percent U.S. decline, the CDC reports. Because improved cancer treatments save many children across the country, the increase in Lake County must be taken seriously and examined by officials.
Lake County should not be at high risk for disease. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, it has a low poverty rate, a small percent of minorities and a low percent of non-English speakers, plus above-average rates of education, income and homeownership. Better-than-average living conditions are accompanied by good access to medical care, both in Lake County and Cleveland.
The last order for a U.S. nuclear reactor occurred in 1978. Three decades later, the nuclear industry is trying to revitalize itself by proposing new reactors and keeping old ones (like Perry) open. Supporters promote nuclear power as a "clean" source, because it does not release greenhouse gases that cause global warming.
But reactors may not be "clean," as they produce their own set of poisons. Any decisions to expand nuclear power should not be made until health risks are fully understood. In the meantime, sources that are safe and renewable (such as solar, wind and geothermal power) should be pursued, to best protect public health.