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Wellness Corner - Nuclear Power and Health - August 2016

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Wellness Corner - August 2016
Nuclear Power and Health

By Gary Pace, M.D.

Climate change, potentially the biggest health issue of our time, is upon us, and efforts have begun to limit the release of greenhouse gases. The most important steps at this point are going to involve transitioning away from burning fossil fuels as our primary energy source. That will mean leaving large oil and coal reserves in the ground and finding renewable energy sources. After a long hiatus due to safety concerns and huge cost over-runs, nuclear power has reappeared on the list of options. What are the health risks from nuclear power? 

Unfortunately, this topic will take two columns to cover. This month, I will discuss the current status of nuclear plants and some issues about our contact with radiation. Next column will discuss how this exposure affects human health.

Quick Overview of Nuclear Power

Concerns about the health effects of radiation from nuclear fission really got established after Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. There is public knowledge about some subsequent major accidents with exposure occurring regionally, and likely globally – Three Mile Island in the US in 1979, Chernobyl in 1986, and the continuing disaster at Fukushima starting in 2011.

As of January 2015, there were over 400 active nuclear plants worldwide (99 in the US) which provide 12.3 percent of the world’s electricity production. Over the last 20 years, getting approval in the US for new reactors has been very difficult. Several European countries, including Germany, have started to phase out nuclear power plants completely due to safety concerns.

Nuclear waste disposal continues to be a huge problem. The Yucca Mountain site in Nevada that was approved as a permanent storage facility in 1987 has met continued public resistance, and currently it looks like the site will not be opened. Therefore, radioactive waste from active plants is currently stored in temporary arrangements, usually onsite. This waste is expected to remain problematic for well over 10,000 years into the future.

Diablo Canyon near Santa Barbara has been a focus of continued controversy due to its location on the San Andreas Fault and to an architectural error where some of the blueprints used in construction were inadvertently read backwards. Recently it was reported that Diablo Canyon will close rather than apply for a license extension. Being California’s only reactors, they produce about 9% of the state’s electricity. PG&E has said they plan to replace this output with renewables.  

Close to home, a huge nuclear plant began construction in the early 1960s on the San Andreas Fault at Bodega Head. Early environmental efforts ended up stopping the building of the plant, which would now be well past its lifespan. If the plant had been completed, the area would now be closed with containers of nuclear waste “temporarily” stored on our Coast. The pond at the Head is the reminder of the foundation that had already been dug at the time of closure.

Fukushima continues to be a concern. Now 5 years past the disaster, radioactive water continues to pour into the Pacific Ocean. Experts are concerned that there will be an increase in thyroid cancers, organ cancers, and leukemia in the region. It is unclear how the radiation going into the ocean will affect sea life and health on the West Coast of the US, but most experts feel that the huge dilution ability of the ocean will minimize the effects.

New plants are continuing to be proposed, and one in South Carolina has been approved. They claim the design is superior and safer than earlier plans. Many aging plants are requesting extensions of their operating licenses past the earlier recommendations.

Other exposures

In modern life, there are definitely exposures to radiation other than from nuclear accidents. Medical imaging (x-rays and CT scans), some medical procedures (radiation therapy), and also background radiation exposure (particularly at issue in plane flights) all lead to a higher overall radiation exposure. Some authors suggest that overall contact with radiation has risen 7-fold since 1980 due to increases in medical procedures. This is almost certainly not inconsequential. A nuclear accident, though, would make the exposure substantially higher.

Next column will address the known and suspected health effects from radiation exposure.

 

 

Comments:

Radioactivity can NOT be “diluted”. It is merely spread.

Jim Piver