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#201 - Nuclear Fallout From Saddam Hussein, 02-Oct-1990

Continuing our review of MULTIPLE EXPOSURES BY CATHERINE CAUFIELD. Page
numbers given in our text, below, refer to Ms. Caufield's book.

The NEW YORK TIMES recently called for greater U.S. reliance on nuclear
power plants to generate electricity. The nuclear industry has seized
upon Saddam Hussein as an excuse to peddle its wares more aggressively,
and the TIMES is helping out. The TIMES says America should go nuclear
in a big way because we need to get off the oil binge and because the
problem of catastrophic nuclear accidents has been solved by new plant
designs. In older nuclear power plants, catastrophic releases of
radioactivity could occur when the nuclear fuel got too hot and melted,
burning a hole in the outermost protective shell of the plant, or
perhaps allowing an explosion to occur. Radiation releases at Three
Mile Island and at Chernobyl both resulted from core meltdown (though
at Three Mile Island the outermost protective shield remained intact).

The TIMES says the core melt problem has been solved in a new
generation of nuclear plants--plants that the nuclear industry calls
"inherently safe." The TIMES seems to like this phrase and repeats it
often.

Even if this optimistic view of modern nuclear plants were correct,
which is by no means assured (see RHWN #145), there would still be good
reason to discourage the spread of nuclear power.

Catastrophic releases of radiation are not the only problems that make
nuclear power plants dangerous; an even larger danger is the routine,
small doses of radiation that occur to workers and to the public alike
as a nuclear plant goes about its business of generating steam and
electricity. Even if nuclear power plants never released large amounts
of radioactivity at one time, the cumulative radiation exposures they
entail would make them much more dangerous than the available
alternatives (biomass, wind, and solar).

The nuclear "fuel cycle" begins when human beings mine uranium from a
mile or so below the surface of the ground; the uranium is then crushed
("milled") into sand. The sand is chemically processed to extract
uranium, which is then sent to a factory where it is turned into fuel
pellets, which are then packaged into rods, which are bundled together
and inserted into the core of a reactor. The rods are allowed to "go
critical"--which is to say, they are encouraged to undergo the same
reactions that occur inside an atomic bomb, though inside a power plant
everything is closely controlled to avoid an explosion. The uranium
fuel undergoes nuclear fission, heats up, boils water which makes
steam, which turns a turbine to make electricity. Meanwhile, the fuel
rods are "fissioning," and making not only heat but also many new
radioactive elements that weren't there to begin with, like strontium-
90 and cesium-137 and plutonium239. These useless, highly dangerous,
and unwanted byproducts are "radioactive waste" and they must be put
somewhere for the duration of the hazard, which in some cases is
several hundred thousand years.

Another kind of radioactive waste, which many people (including the
editors of the TIMES) tend to forget is the uranium mine and mill
wastes that remain heaped on the desert because there isn't anyplace
else to put them. (They are mined as rock, then crushed into sand and
after they are crushed their volume is so large that they don't fit
back in the same hole they originally came out of, besides which
putting them back into the ground would be expensive and would obstruct
further underground digging, so there is no place to put them except in
a big pile on the desert where they blow around with the wind, wash
away with the rain, and exude radioactive radon gas for thousands of
years into the future, causing deadly exposures all the while. There
are already 191 million tons of radioactive uranium wastes heaped on
the desert in the southwestern U.S., literally blowing on the wind;
they contain little uranium but much radium (about 100 times the amount
of radium found in average rock). U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) estimates that the people living near these piles have a one-in-
a-thousand chance of fatal lung cancer--a risk 1000 times greater than
the risks EPA usually calls "acceptable." (Pgs. 75-88, 202-207.)

The people who mine uranium have been treated as a disposable
commodity. The U.S. Public Health Service says the death rate from lung
cancer is five times greater among uranium miners than among the
population as a whole. The average age of uranium miners who die of
lung cancer is 46. (Pg. 78.)

A problem affecting even more people is the radiation exposure that
accompanies the routine operations of a nuclear power plant and its
associated "fuel cycle." The public is exposed somewhat; workers are
exposed somewhat more. As radioactive fuel and wastes are created and
handled and transported and stored, many people are exposed a little.
Inside the plant itself, a broken pipe spills a puddle of radioactive
water, which someone mops up. Then the pipe is fixed or replaced. Each
operation exposes workers a little more and creates a little more
radioactive waste, which must be packaged and shipped somewhere by
someone. Exposures add up.

The unit of measurement for radioactivity is the rem. One person
exposed to one rem of radiation creates an exposure of one person-rem.
The size of a nuclear power plant is measured by the plant's capacity
to produce electricity. A large plant is rated at 2 billion watts, or 2
gigawatts, meaning it could light 20 million 100-watt light bulbs
continuously. Such a plant operating for one year will produce 2
gigawatt-years of electricity.

The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic
Radiation (UNSCEAR) estimates that one gigawatt-year of nuclear
electricity produces 467,500 person-rem of dose-commitment; this means
that running a 2-gigawatt nuclear plant creates conditions that will
eventually lead to 467,500 x 2 = 935,000 person-rems of exposure each
year it remains in operation (pgs. 163, 202). According to the
International Commission on Radiation Protection (ICRP), which is the
most prestigious standards-setting group for the nuclear industry--this
will cause fatal cancers in 116 people per year and will cause 75
serious genetic defects per year (pgs. 163, 202). If this typical
nuclear plant operated for 25 years, it would thus kill a total of 25 x
116 = 2900 people and would cause 25 x 75 = 1875 serious genetic
defects. For every fatal cancer, there will also be 1.5 to 2 non-fatal
cancers caused; so, conservatively, we can estimate that 25 years of
operation of a 2-gigawatt nuclear power plant will cause 1.5 x 2900 =
4350 non-fatal cancers (skin cancers and thyroid cancers, for example);
these costs of operating a nuclear power plant will accrue far into the
future (pgs. 163, 183).

These are rock-bottom estimates, straight from the heart of a
standards-setting agency of the nuclear industry, the ICRP. Another
international organization, established to track the health of humans
who survived the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (called the
Radiation Effects Research Foundation), during the 1980s published a
series of reports indicating that the survivors of Hiroshima and
Nagasaki had been exposed to about 10 times less radiation than was
previously thought; since current estimates about radiation danger to
humans are largely based on the experiences of these Japanese people,
this means that current estimates of the hazards of radiation are
roughly 10 times too low (pg. 164). If this is the case (and there is
now a great deal of evidence that it is), this means that operating a
2-gigawatt nuclear power plant for 25 years will kill 29,000 people,
not 2,900 people, and will cause an additional 43,500 non-fatal
cancers, not 4,350 non-fatal cancers. If the genetic damage increases
proportionately with the cancer risk (very likely a good assumption),
18,750 serious genetic defects will be caused by operating a nuclear
power plant for 25 years, not merely 1,875 serious genetic defects.

We must not let Saddam Hussein stampede us, or the TIMES lead us, down
this dark, dangerous path.

Get: Catherine Caufield, MULTIPLE EXPOSURES, CHRONICLES OF THE
RADIATION AGE (NY: Harper & Row, 1989). Another good book (despite its
age), filled with useful information, is: The Union of Concerned
Scientists, THE NUCLEAR FUEL CYCLE [Revised edition] (Cambridge, MA:
MIT Press, 1975).

--Peter Montague

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Descriptor terms: catherine caufield; new york times; nuclear power
plants; tmi; chernobyl; meltdown; radiation; occupational safety and
health; uranium; radioactive waste; radium; radon; lung cancer;
mortality; exposure; united nations; radiation effects research
foundation; hiroshima; nagasaki; nuclear weapons;