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--- May 6, 1993 ---
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The civilian nuclear power industry has been hammered relentlessly by bad news throughout 1993.

Subhead: "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.

Subhead: 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.

Subhead: 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]

Subhead: 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.

Subhead: 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]

--Peter Montague, Ph.D. ===============

[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 national laboratory; ornl; radiation; standards; cancer; hormesis; occupational safety and health; nuclear power; nuclear safety; uk; great britain; british national radiological protection board; nrpb; worker safety; background radiation; chernobyl; belarus; thyroid cancer; children; childhood cancer; world health organization; us doe; us department of energy; decommissioning; fort st. vrain; co; who; colorado; htgr; inherently safe; brc; below regulatory concern; perry; ohio; oh; high temperature gas cooled reactors; leaks; air pollution; referendums; regulation; citizen action;

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