Bob Herbert's July 19 New York Times column rightly states that the harm from a meltdown at a nuclear power plant "would make the Deepwater Horizon disaster look like a walk in the park." Herbert also warns that systems needed to prevent a meltdown are not well developed. "Right now, we're not ready," he says.
The damage from the April oil well rupture which spewed into the Gulf of Mexico is still being calculated. It killed 11 workers and thousands of aquatic creatures. Recovery workers have become ill attempting to cap the damaged well. The ecosystem of a large body of water and coastline has been damaged. The economic losses are staggering.
But the Deepwater disaster still can't hold a candle to a nuclear accident.
Understanding why a meltdown would be so devastating is possible only after recognizing that nuclear reactors produce the same radioactive chemicals in atomic bomb explosions. Splitting uranium atoms produces a cocktail of 100-plus chemicals that are radioactive waste products, including Cesium-137, Iodine-131, and Strontium-90.
If water cooling a reactor's core or waste pools was removed, from mechanical failure or act of sabotage, huge amounts of toxic gases and particles would be released and breathed by humans. Many thousands would be stricken immediately with radiation poisoning, and subsequently with cancer. Infants and children would suffer most.
From 1945 to 1963, atom bombs were tested in the atmosphere in remote areas of the south Pacific and Nevada. But still, the fallout drifted long distances and contaminated the diet of all Americans. In 1999, the National Institute of Medicine concluded that up to 212,000 Americans developed thyroid cancer from the Nevada tests.
But reactors are not in remote locations. Most are near highly populated areas. One example is Indian Point, which is just 23 miles from the New York City border. The plant has three reactors; one has shut down, but the other two have been operating since the mid-1970s. Its aging parts are corroding, and several "near miss" meltdown situations have occurred in the past decade, according to a 2006 Greenpeace report.
If Indian Point experienced a meltdown, and an evacuation was attempted, New York area traffic would be far worse than its usual crawl. Radioactivity, carried by winds, would reach 21 million people living within 50 miles of the plant. Even among those evacuated, many would not be able to return to their homes, since their environment would remain contaminated.
Indian Point may be the worst case scenario for a meltdown, as New York is the most populated city in the U.S. But nuclear plants are situated on the outskirts of virtually every major metropolitan area in the nation.
Bob Herbert's warning that systems to prevent meltdowns at nuclear plants are insufficient was also a conclusion of the 9/11 Commission. One of the hijacked planes headed for Manhattan flew directly over Indian Point. Had the plane crashed into Indian Point's core or waste pools, the consequences would have been far worse than the loss of nearly 3,000 lives at the World Trade Center.
Safety systems exist at nuclear plants, but anything less than 100 percent effectiveness is dangerous. One flaw came to light in 2002 at the Davis Besse plant near Toledo Ohio. Boric acid had eaten through nearly all of an 8-inch a steel beam in the plant's ceiling, reducing it to less than half an inch at its thinnest part. Disturbingly, the problem was discovered accidentally, not from any routine safety procedure.
The meltdown scenario is disturbing, but there is more to the nuclear threat. Most radioactive waste is stored, but some is routinely or accidentally released into air and water from all 104 U.S. nuclear reactors. These enter our bodies through breathing, and also the food chain.
No government program has ever measured how much radioactivity from reactors enters our bodies, as officials call these amounts "negligible." But a landmark study, whose results have been published in five leading medical journals, has provided evidence to the contrary. Levels of Strontium-90 in nearly 5,000 baby teeth are 30 to 50% greater in children living closest to nuclear plants, and are rising over time. In the 1950s and 1960s, Strontium-90 was often cited as one of the most toxic chemicals in bomb fallout.
Tooth study results raise the question of whether reactor emissions have raised cancer rates near nuclear plants. Again, government officials dismiss this possibility. But near nuclear plants in New York and New Jersey, increases in Sr-90 in teeth were matched by similar increases in local childhood cancer rates a few years later.
Children suffer the greatest damage from radiation exposure, but adults are not exempt. Thyroid cancer is one of the most radiation-sensitive cancers, because radioactive iodine in bomb fallout and reactor emissions seek out the thyroid gland and destroy its cells. A 2009 scientific article reported the highest U.S. thyroid cancer rate in a small 90-mile radius. This encompassed eastern Pennsylvania, central New Jersey, and southern New York, where 16 reactors are located.
Other scientific reports have documented evidence that nuclear plant shut downs are followed immediately by dramatic reductions in local infant deaths and child cancers. This is similar to what happened nationally following the 1963 ban on above-ground atomic tests.
Proposals to build new reactors to replace carbon-producing coal plants are accompanied by claims that nuclear power is "clean." This could not be further from the truth. We should never forget that nuclear reactors are essentially controlled atom bombs.
As lessons of the Deepwater fiasco are learned, we must understand the hard truth that certain energy sources pose very high risks to our security and health. We must do all we can to prevent another massive oil spill, or a nuclear meltdown. But we should go further, by developing energy sources that are safe. Solar panels need no security precautions. Wind mills don't cause environmental catastrophes. We must be proactive and safe.
Samuel Epstein MD
Professor emeritus of Environment and Occupational Medicine
University of Illinois-Chicago School of Public Health and
Chairman, Cancer Prevention Coalition
Author of the 2005 Cancer-Gate: How to Win the Losing Cancer War and the 2009 Toxic Beauty books.
Joseph Mangano MPH MBA
Executive Director, Radiation and Public Health Project, New York
Author of the 2008 Radioactive Baby Teeth: The Cancer Link