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Radiation now pollutes the drinking water in Tokyo, far from the scene of the ruined power plants.  Could that happen in the United States, with our 104 active nuclear power plants, the most of any nation in the world?

In fact, it’s already happened, and goes on still, not the outcome of a unique triple catastrophe but just from business as usual.  It’s not only major calamities such as Japan’s but also the day-to-day operating problems of nuclear energy production that threaten our children’s health.

At dozens of nuclear plants across the country, tritium, a radioactive atom, leaks into the millions of gallons of ground water and ends up in the supplies that the near-by communities use for drinking, bathing and cooking.(1)  Yet the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), which is supposed to regulate nuclear power, does not require nuclear plant operators to test groundwater.  It's a voluntary initiative.  The owners of the Vermont Yankee plant even denied the existence of the underground pipes that were leaking.

Nor are radioactive leaks the only commonplace dangers.  Last year, 2010, the NRC reported finding significant “near misses” of one variety or another, after making 14 special inspections. (2)   In addition, the mining of uranium and the debris left from making nuclear fuel release radioactive gases which spew radiation and other pollutants into the air and drinking water of near-by communities (3) and blow clear across the country.

Do such day-to-day radioactive toxins cause harm?  After fifty years of nuclear energy production and a flawed study done 11 years ago, last year the NRC took steps to find out.   It asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to study whether people who live near NRC-licensed nuclear facilities are at an increased risk for cancer.

Sarah Sauer and her parents spoke last year at one of the public meetings the National Academy of Science’s expert committee is holding across the country.  Sarah, who has survived the brain tumor found when she was seven, lived then with her family near two nuclear power plants in Grundy County, Illinois.  These plants, operated by Exelon, our nation’s largest supplier of nuclear energy, had leaked tritium into the surrounding community for a long but unknown time.  Addressing the NAS,  Sarah asked them to remember that she is one of the statistics they are studying; her parents spoke of the numerous and serious leaks from the Exelon plants and the health concerns these leaks raise.  Sarah and her parents plan to return to talk to the committee.

But there’s a problem built into the study design: science currently measures radioactive harm by using as its “reference man” a male, Caucasian, between 20 to 30 years old, weighing 154 lbs, standing 5’7” tall, living in a temperate climate.  The study will not inform us about harm to children because children’s bodies are vastly more susceptible to all kinds of environmental exposures than adults.

It’s also logical to ask a related second question about potential dangers:  If nuclear plant operators not infrequently fail to protect their facilities from commonplace accidents, isn’t it inevitable that, sooner or later, they will fail to prevent a major disaster?  That’s exactly what the Tokyo Electric Power Company’s history indicates.

No need, though, to look for warning parallels anywhere but in our own backyard.  Think of our nation’s financial disaster of 2008, even termed a “meltdown.”  Recall the BP oil calamity.  Remember Enron, its lying top mangers and the lying auditors who were supposed to be its safeguards.  Look at the coal mining industry’s record.

The same web of malfeasance runs through them all.  The executives pursue huge and quick personal gain, the companies choose a good-looking if fake bottom line.  The governmental bodies that are supposed to regulate and protect instead become captive to the very industries they were founded to control.  (One example: The NRC successfully fought a law that would have required potassium iodide, an antidote to radiation exposure, to be stockpiled to protect people living near nuclear reactors.)  The top executives of the regulatory agencies come out of the industry for a few years, then return to their old buddies to earn even higher remuneration.

Huge and ever huger corporate donations pollute the entire political system.  Exelon spent a bit more than $3.7 million on lobbying last year.(5)  Companies and unions related to the nuclear industry spent more than $650 million on lobbying and campaign contributions from 1999 through 2008, and $84 million in the first three quarters of 2009 alone.(6)  Members of Congress vote for laws that protect their donors’ interests.

The parallel between nuclear and other industries extends to the use of tax-payer money.  Just as we the people paid to bail out the banks, the nuclear industry wants government guarantees.  After five decades of operation, why are private investors unwilling to take the risk?  Why did President Obama seek $36 billion of taxpayer money for loan guarantees for a proposed 20 new nuclear plants?  If accidents occur, federal laws cap the industry’s liability for damage to people and property; in contrast, other energy providers must carry full private insurance.  The corporate owners of nuclear facilities have already written off tens of billions of dollars in cost overruns.(7)

As always, when our children are harmed by an industry’s pursuit of profit over safety, families and taxpayers end up paying the financial and human cost.

The conclusion must be, that safe energy sources such as solar, wind and geothermal, despite their shortcomings, are the only way to power the future and protect our children.----

Resources for Parents

Nuclear Information and Resource Service, www.nirs.org

Wise Uranium Project, www.wise-uranium.org/edusa.html

Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Safe Energy Program, www.psr.org

Public Citizen, www.citizen.org/cmep

Union of Concerned Scientists, www.ucsusa.org

Citations

1.  Groundwater Contamination (Tritium) at Nuclear Plants, www.nrc.gov/reactors/operating/ops-experience/grndwtr-contam-tritium.html

2.  “The NRC and Nuclear Power Plant Safety, www.ucsusa.org/nuclear_power/nuclear_power

3.  Poisoned for Profit, Philip and Alice Shabecoff, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2010, pp 215-22.

4.  www.epa.gov/radtown/uranium-mines.html

5.  www.opensecrets.org/lobby

6.  “Nuclear Industry Working Hard to Win Support,” Judy Pasternak, http://investigativereportingworkshop.org/investigations/nuclear-energy-lobbying

7.  “Nuclear Power Still Not Viable with Subsidies,” www.earthtrack.net

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Alice Shabecoff is the co-author with her husband Philip of Poisoned for Profits: How Toxins Are Making Our Children Chronically Ill, which includes the story of Exelon and the Sauer family.


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