Sunday, December 16, 2007

EDITORIAL: My Turn: Vermont Yankee -- a 35-year health hazard

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Published: Friday, December 7, 2007
By Spencer Smith

While teaching at a university in Ukraine from 2001 to 2003 as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer, I became aware of the long-term results of a nuclear disaster. During part of my time in the country, I lived only 50 miles from Chernobyl and knew people who were contaminated by the 1986 tragedy.

Near Chernobyl about 2.1 million people (including 700,000 children) still live on contaminated land. But a core meltdown or terrorist attack, are not the only ways in which Vermont Yankee threatens the health of Vermonters. Only a year ago I learned that, like all reactors, Yankee routinely emits radioactive elements into the air. These particles enter our bodies through breathing and the food chain -- just as after a reactor meltdown, but in much lower doses. This situation has existed since Yankee went online in 1972.

Radioactive emissions are a mix of over 100 chemicals created only in nuclear bomb explosions and reactor operations. Cesium-137 disperses throughout our soft tissue; iodine-131 targets our thyroid gland; and Strontium-90 enters our bones. Each of these causes cancer and is especially harmful to our babies and young children -- even fetuses. Some of the cancers can take a long time to develop. According to the New York Times, leukemia, which takes about 20 years, is now appearing in epidemic numbers in Brooklyn, N.Y., among Russian-speaking emigres who left Ukraine and Belarus after the Chernobyl disaster.

Entergy Nuclear and the NRC maintain that our plant is safe from a meltdown and that Yankee's emission levels fall below federal permissible limits. But a blue-ribbon panel of the National Academy of Sciences concluded in 2005 that there is no safe dose of radiation. In part this is because radiation -- like lead, mercury, and some chemicals -- accumulates in our bodies. Those who live near the reactor receive the heaviest dose, but some of the radiation released from Vermont Yankee is carried by prevailing winds outside Windham County to other parts of Vermont.

Data from the National Center for Health Statistics reveal that in the past 25 years, death rates for young people in Windham County have been higher than for the rest of Vermont. According to official health department records, the death rate for children younger than 1 was 13.2 percent higher. The death rate for ages 1-24 years was 37.2 percent higher. The death rate for ages 25-34 was 25.5 percent higher.

Twenty years ago, the Windham county cancer death rate (all ages) was 4.8 percent lower than the rest of Vermont. Today it has risen to a rate 10 percent higher than the state average. There are no obvious reasons why Windham County should have these higher death rates.

According to U.S. Census data, compared to the rest of Vermont, Windham has about the same proportion of young, elderly, minorities, and foreign-born. Educational, income and poverty levels are comparable to the rest of the state. The county is largely rural, with no major polluting industries. Radioactive emissions from Vermont Yankee should be looked at as one possible cause.

In my opinion, nuclear power has been a daily disaster from the start. And now that safer sources of electricity than nuclear power are increasingly available on an industrial scale, why is Vermont Yankee still operating? And without even looking at the possibility of core meltdown in an aging, corroding plant, why should Vermont Yankee be re-licensed?

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