There wasn’t much good news to report from the year 2000, but topping the list in health terms was the long-overdue final shutdown of the Chernobyl nuclear power station on December 15. Unit Four at the Ukrainian complex blew up in 1986, spewing radioactive death and destruction around the planet. Evidence points to a skyrocketing death rate among the 800,000 “liquidators” who were forced by the Soviet government to help clean up the stricken reactor, while new studies also show escalating cancers among civilians in the downwind areas.
Earlier in the year, on the fourteenth anniversary of the Chernobyl debacle, the Radiation and Public Health Project and Standing for Truth About Radiation (STAR), a national safe-energy organization, released a pathbreaking study showing that radioactive emissions from commercial reactors are having catastrophic health effects on people living near them comparable to those experienced by nuclear weapons workers, for which the Energy Department has finally admitted responsibility. The study, by Joseph Mangano, a nationally known epidemiologist, compared infant death rates in areas surrounding five nuclear power plants while they were operating and in the years after their shutdowns. Mangano found that from 1985 to 1996, average nationwide death rates for infants under the age of 1 dropped 6.4 percent every two years. But in the areas surrounding five reactors closed down between 1987 and 1995, infant death rates dropped an average of 18 percent in the first two years. “It’s hard to imagine a clearer correlation,” says Mangano. “The fetus in utero and small babies are the most vulnerable to even tiny doses of the kinds of radiation emitted from nuclear power plants. Stop the emissions, and you save the children.”
Published in the journal Environmental Epidemiology and Toxicology, Mangano’s study covered these reactors: Wisconsin’s LaCrosse, which closed in 1987; Rancho Seco, near Sacramento, and Colorado’s Ft. St. Vrain, both closed in 1989; Trojan, near Portland, Oregon, which shut in 1992; Connecticut’s Millstone plant, which closed in 1995. Later research on two additional reactors, Maine Yankee and Big Rock Point in Michigan, both of which went cold in 1997, showed that infant death rates fell a stunning 33.4 percent and 54.1 percent, respectively.
“Forty-two million Americans live downwind within fifty miles of commercial reactors,” says Mangano. “The Nuclear Regulatory Commission allows nuclear plants to emit a certain level of radiation, saying that amount is too low to result in adverse health effects. But it does not do follow-up studies to see if there are excessive infant deaths, birth defects or cancers.” Additional research by Mangano also indicates a drop in overall cancer deaths among elderly people living near nuclear plants once they are deactivated.
On June 5 the Supreme Court ruled that some 1,900 central Pennsylvanians living downwind from the Three Mile Island nuclear plant could sue for health damages. Local residents and researchers claim that a plague of death and disease followed the March 28, 1979, radiation leak at TMI Unit 2.
Even longer-overdue justice is coming to workers in the Energy Department’s nuclear weapons production facilities. From the 1943 beginnings of the Manhattan Project to the ongoing enrichment of uranium at gigantic plants in Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, the government has denied virtually all claims from thousands of workers suffering from a range of radiation-related diseases. But the DOE finally issued a series of sweeping admissions after DOE-sponsored research found excess worker deaths from cancer and other causes at fourteen DOE facilities. A DOE report issued in May confirmed that hundreds of workers at Ohio’s Portsmouth Gaseous Diffusion Plant, whose supervisors did not require them to wear protective masks, routinely inhaled uranium dust, arsenic and other lethal pollutants. President Bill Clinton signed into law a federal compensation program for DOE workers exposed to radiation, beryllium and silica. The program will cover some 600,000 people involved in making nuclear weapons.
The DOE’s admissions give new weight to public demands that the commercial reactor industry come to terms with public health risks now that numerous aging and leaky reactors are waiting in line for extended licenses from the NRC. “How much more of this bodies-in-the-morgue approach to public health research do we need?” asks Robert Alvarez, executive director of STAR. “Shutting reactors may save lives. What more needs to be said?”