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Alec Baldwin

Alec Baldwin

Posted: April 11, 2010 10:19 PM

The Human Costs of Nuclear Power

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In two previous posts, I wrote about the path I had gotten on, back in 1995, to shut down a research reactor at the Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. The reactor, called a High Flux Beam Reactor, or HFBR, had its operations suspended and was eventually shut down, in 1999, after an investigation established that tritium had leaked from spent fuel pools and had contaminated ground water within and beyond the Brookhaven Lab site.

I met many people while working on the BNL issue, as well as other battles involving nuclear power. One of them was Randy Snell, a Long Island resident who raised his family near Brookhaven. Snell's daughter developed a rare form of cancer, rhabdomyosarcoma, which was found in several other children living near BNL. The total number of cases was fifteen times the national average. Snell, and others who were struggling with "rhabdo" (and other soft tissue cancers) near reactors or enrichment facilities, told me that exposure to low-level radiation is a factor in the disease.

Many activists working on the issue at the time referred to Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, and its discussion of "bioaccumulation." Carson stated that chemical contamination, both alone and in conjunction with radiological contamination, would lead to extraordinary health hazards for human and animal populations. Long Island, particularly the Eastern region (Suffolk County) has been bombarded with applications of pesticides, herbicides and fungicides for many decades. Chemicals applied in farming (particularly potato farming), home lawn care, ball parks and golf courses have been driven down through a rather shallow "lense" of soil and have contaminated groundwater on Long Island with impunity. Breast cancer rates in Suffolk County are among the highest in the US.

After BNL was shut down, the group I was working with at the time, Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR) Foundation folded. Contacts I had made while with STAR led me to the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) and my association with Dr. Jay Gould, Dr. Ernest Sternglass and Joe Mangano, who is the current Executive Director of RPHP. While RPHP introduced me to debates regarding alternative energy and the dangers posed by utility reactors all over the US, RPHP's focus was on Millstone in Connecticut, on Indian Point in Buchanan, New York and, most intently, on the Oyster Creek Reactor in Tom's River, New Jersey.

RPHP's assertion is clear and is not new information. There are no safe levels of exposure to the byproducts created by the generation of reactors currently in use. RPHP has dedicated much of their work to promulgating the research of Dr. Ernest Sternglass, whose seemingly innocuously titled research into strontium 90 deposits in children's primary teeth actually helped influence John F. Kennedy's test ban decision in 1963. The "Tooth Fairy Project" supports a simple idea. Strontium 90, emitted by conventional utility reactors, mimics calcium in the body and is termed "bone-seeking." It deposits itself in the bones and marrow, after the larger amount of food-ingested strontium 90 is excreted by the body. In the developing fetuses of pregnant women, strontium 90 (again, mimicking calcium) is deposited in the teeth. Once in the teeth, it decays into a "daughter element", yttrium, the element that researchers like Stenglass look for as the marker for elevated exposure to radiation.

Sternglass came to this research after he familiarized himself with the work of Dr. Alice Stewart, a British epidemiologist who had studied the effects of radiation on children from X-rays. Later in her career, Stewart worked on a study of the Hanford plutonium production site in Washington state. Some of the original and most significant work in this field was done by Dr. Louise Z. Reiss, who oversaw the 1958 study, The St. Louis Baby Tooth Survey. The St. Louis survey found that traces of radioactive elements in new born children had risen 100 fold during the 1950's, which coincided with the most active period of above ground testing of atomic weapons. When the testing either ceased or was curtailed, levels of radioactive material in the primary teeth of children were found to have fallen.

Levels of radiation, as detected in children's teeth, fell after above ground testing ended. Then, according to Sternglass, they spiked again in direct relation to the growth of nuclear reactors as increased sources of power at public utilities.

In my next posts, I will address the work by Sternglass and others to apply strontium 90 research to the advent of utility reactors. Also, I will cover criticism of Sternglass' work, discussion on this site of "new generation" thorium reactors, the travails of workers at enrichment plants like Oak Ridge, Tennessee and Piketon, Ohio, the political legacy of certain New Jersey officials (Democrat and Republican) as pertains to the Oyster Creek reactor, and the great, looming issue of nuclear waste management as symbolized by the heartbreaking tragedy of Hanford.