Who is monitoring the health of populations around nuclear power plants?

Author’s note: I wrote this blog post with knowledge of the ongoing tritium leaks plaguing a number of  nuclear power reactors in the U.S., but before the latest high levels of tritium released from the Indian Point reactor in New York were reported. These recent unplanned and largely unaccounted for releases bring into stark relief the need to measure in real time the releases we DO initially control; further, it is reasonable to request public access to these data.

Portrait of Marie Curie, and her two daughters, Eve and Irene, 1908. Irene experimented with radioactive materials like her parents and died at 58. Eva was a writer and pianist and died at 102.

Portrait of Marie Curie, and her two daughters, Eve and Irene, 1908. Irene experimented with radioactive materials like her parents and died at 58. Eva was a writer and pianist and died at 102.

Humans have known of natural radioactivity since about the turn of the 20th century when Marie Curie carried around vials of radioactive substances in her pocket, admiring the glow-in-the-dark “fairy lights” they would give off. Long-term exposure to these “fairly lights” made Curie chronically ill, physically scarred, and nearly blind from cataracts. At the age of 66, she succumbed to a radiation-induced disease (either leukemia or aplastic anemia, sources differ), as did her daughter and son-in-law. Despite being deeply troubled by deaths of colleagues and radiation workers, the Curies never really admitted radioactivity played a role in their diseases; Marie even recommended sickened radium dial painters eat calf’s liver to combat anemia. Daughter Eva, who outlived her sister by 50 years, died at 102 and recognized the role radiation played in the shortened lives of her female kin.

This denial of the dangers of radioactivity has carried through to the present day. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued its first-ever radiation exposure standards in 1977, the US was only 20 years into the atomic energy age, barely long enough to see many of the health impacts radioactivity may have had. Man-made radioactivity had been around for about 40 years with the building of the bomb, well before EPA was established, but well after some very nasty health effects from larger doses were recognized.  Now, in 2015, EPA is considering revising its radiation standards – the first major revision since 1977.

EPA is responsible for regulating radioactive emissions that migrate off of a site that releases such material. These off site releases can expose members of the public and their environment. Revision of these nearly 40-year old standards should be a good thing; adding protection for women who are 50 % more sensitive to radioactivity than men; and providing proper protection for pregnancy and childhood development —life stages that are particularly, in some cases uniquely, sensitive to exposure to radioactivity. But old habits, and nuclear industry interference, die hard.

PART I: WHY MEASURE WHEN YOU CAN ESTIMATE? WHY ESTIMATE WHEN YOU CAN IGNORE?

If you can’t get rid of the radioactivity, you should just ignore that it exists

Atomic energy produces and releases a number of radioactive isotopes during normal reactor operation. Two such isotopes are carbon-14 (radioactive carbon) released as carbon dioxide and methane; and tritium, which is radioactive hydrogen. These two isotopes are the focus of this piece, although there are many other isotopes of concern. The National Academy of Sciences states “carbon-14 may be a significant contributor to dose from nuclear plant releases, especially in recent years”. Tritium is leaking regularly in unknown amounts from most of the US nuclear power reactors in addition to being released “normally”. Of course, industry often downplays the health impact these isotopes may have; however, both tritium and radioactive carbon cross the placenta and can concentrate in fetal tissue at twice the level of maternal tissue. Releases of gaseous nuclides like tritium and carbon-14 have been posited as a factor in childhood leukemia increases around nuclear power facilities in Europe.

CF - Radiation - 2

How unfortunate, then, that EPA’s 1977 radiation standards failed to require measurement of releases for either carbon-14 or tritium. Why?—because there was no economically and technologically feasible way to filter out radioactive carbon and radioactive hydrogen, a condition EPA says remains unchanged. To sum up: EPA has decided if the pollution can’t be filtered, society is better off not knowing how much the nuclear machine is pumping out.  In the real world of choices based on facts and consequences, if a pollutant can’t be filtered, that is all the more reason the public should know how much is being released. Right now the public and policy makers are trying to decide what our energy future will look like. Withholding knowledge about nuclear pollution will prevent society from making an informed decision. Back then, rather than regulating to protect and inform the public, EPA was regulating when it was convenient and not too expensive. But for these two isotopes in particular, lazy regulation is no longer an option.

Why require measurement when you can pull an estimate out of your, um, hat?

Until 2010, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), the regulatory agency in charge of on-site emissions, failed to even require estimates of carbon-14 releases. Now the industry is required to estimate, but they still don’t have to actually measure. Industry cannot even begin to get an idea of how much tritium has been/is being released or where it is going.

The industry promises (cross its heart and hope to die) that these radioactive belches from its ailing machines are far too small to cause any trouble to members of the public living around these facilities. Because of this unsubstantiated certainty, and claims that this information is proprietary, industry contends that they need only provide NRC with averaged release data. Maybe this averaged data would be adequate in a world without reproduction and pregnancy. But in a population with people of child-bearing age, timing matters. ALL radioactive effluent (not just tritium and carbon-14) must be measured at the point of release from the nuclear facility (stack and pipe) in real-time, and these data transmitted offsite to independent third parties, e.g. university health and science departments or emergency responders, where they can be stored for future reference. Why?

“…social science domains and even biology appear to be inherently more complex than physics… embrace complexity, and use as much data as well as we can to help define (or estimate) the complex models we need for these complex domains.” Peter Norvig

In biology, timing matters; and radioactivity is released in spikes, not averages

Half-hourly emissions data collected from the chimney stack of Gundremmingen C, a 1300 megawatt boiling water reactor in Germany, shows that when the reactor was shut down and the core opened for refueling and maintenance, the radioactive gas releases from the facility topped out at about 500 times higher than their normal release rate (see graph below). Even the “normal” release rate at this facility was hundreds of times higher than natural radioactivity in air from radon. These spike releases may have exposed people living near the facility to 20 to 100 times the amount of “normal” releases.

Further, these gases can collect in foodstuffs grown around the reactor. So, while industry keeps information about these releases hidden from public consumption, it doesn’t see a problem with making the public eat this radioactivity, literally. The industry is using the environment, the food supply, and the human body as dumping grounds with little challenge.

Reactors refuel every 18 months to two years on average, and evidence strongly suggests that spikes like those at Germany’s reactor could very well be found at US reactors. The Gundremmingen reactors were owned and operated by the regional government, giving officials there an incentive and ability to investigate the release data. In the US, the vast majority of nuclear reactors are privately held by companies with every incentive to keep profit-damaging data secret by advancing rationales of “cost” and the need to protect “proprietary” information. In Germany, large-scale publicly funded research showed elevated levels of leukemia in children who live near nuclear reactors. In the US, the industry – enabled by lax regulation – has been able to keep crucial data hidden from the public. Thus, increased childhood cancers (click on Dr. Joseph Sauer, MD flash video at link) around nuclear reactors still remain unexplained.

Noble gas concentrations at Gundremmingen C, September 19-25, 2011  (Dr. Alfred Körblein)

Noble gas concentrations at Gundremmingen C, September 19-25, 2011  (Dr. Alfred Körblein)

Of grave concern is how these radioactive spikes affect the uniquely sensitive developmental stages of pregnancy. Every organ in your and your child’s body develops from a single cell. For instance, the first eight weeks after conception, the heart, spinal cord and brain, major blood vessels and the beginning of bones and muscles, are in the process of forming. However, radiation standards afford this life stage no greater protection than early childhood, when most organs are past the stage of formation and are actively growing. What happens if during one of these crucial and delicate developmental phases a pregnant woman inhales gas from one of these radioactive belches? Or drinks milk from a locally exposed cow? Childhood leukemia, low birth weight, compromised neural development are all associated with exposure to radiation during pregnancy and early childhood.

Astonishingly, no official body in the United States is seriously investigating these impacts. In fact, the U. S. federal government appears not to conduct public health impact studies of populations around nuclear power reactor sites.

About author
Cindy Folkers specializes in radiation impacts on health; Congress watch; energy legislation; climate change, and federal subsidies for nuclear power at Beyond Nuclear.
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