Think Nuke Power is Safe? Think Again


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“Reporters, columnists and nuclear industry boosters often state without qualification that nuclear facilities “have operated safely since the 1970s.” It is easy to prove this statement false.
Every U.S. government agency that regulates radiation exposure agrees that there is no safe level of exposure.
The Environmental Protection Agency says, ‘There is no level below which we can say an exposure poses no risk….'”

Author: John LaForge, Nukewatch staff
Published in: Cap Times in Madison, Wisconsin
Date: February 5, 2010

For the full article:
Think Nuke Power is Safe? Think Again
(620 words)
by John LaForge

Reporters, columnists and nuclear industry boosters often state without qualification that nuclear facilities “have operated safely since the 1970s.” It is easy to prove this statement false.

Every U.S. government agency that regulates radiation exposure agrees that there is no safe level of exposure.

The Environmental Protection Agency says, “There is no level below which we can say an exposure poses no risk. … Radiation is a carcinogen. It may also cause other adverse health effects, including genetic defects in the children of exposed parents or mental retardation in the children of mothers exposed during pregnancy.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission says, “The radiation protection community conservatively assumes that any amount of radiation may pose some risk for causing cancer and hereditary effect.”

The National Council on Radiation Protection says that “every increment of radiation exposure produces an incremental increase in the risk of cancer.”

Many people do not know that radioactive contamination of the environment occurs daily from the normal operation of nuclear reactors. Reactors can’t even operate without regular, legally permitted — as well as accidental and prohibited — releases of radioactively contaminated water and gas, such as tritium, Xenon, Krypton, and even strontium-90 and cobalt-60. Radioactivity is vented every day in order to control the pressure, temperature and humidity inside reactor cores and to keep radiation levels from exceeding exposure limits for nuclear reactor workers inside. The workers’ exposures are a necessary evil of reactor operations, and are allowed under statute, but they’re all unsafe and increase the workers’ risk of cancer.

Wisconsin’s reactors at Point Beach and Kewaunee spew radiation like all the others. In fact Wisconsin’s reactors have a particularly unsafe record of operations, when compared to the other 101 reactors operating across the country. Only four “Red Findings” — the most serious safety failure warning the government issues — have been issued in the history of the NRC. Two of the four went to Point Beach.

One Red Finding included a $325,000 fine for 16 safety violations, including the potentially catastrophic May 1996 explosion of hydrogen gas, “powerful enough to upend the three-ton lid,” inside a loaded radioactive waste cask. The NRC said Point Beach operators were “inattentive to their duties,” were found “starting up a power unit while one of its safety systems was inoperable,” and had failed to install “the required number of cooling pumps.”

Regarding human exposures, Kewaunee and Point Beach have both contaminated surface and groundwater with radioactive releases, some unlawful. In 1975, Point Beach Unit 1 leaked approximately 10,000 gallons of radioactively contaminated water, which flowed into a retention pond and from there into groundwater. In 1997, another 10,000 gallons of radioactive water ran eventually into Lake Michigan. That year, Unit 2 had a leaking discharge pipe that contaminated a stream and Lake Michigan. In a 2005 case, a Point Beach worker was convicted in federal court of knowingly making false written statements to the NRC. Nukewatch has compiled a list of 27 such accidents between 1995 and 2009.

In 2006, Kewaunee workers found radioactive tritium in the groundwater below the facility. The leak rate was unknown, and the operators could not find the leak’s source but were investigating. Groundwater cannot be decontaminated and tritium persists in the ecosystem for about 120 years.

The bio-accumulation of these long-lived radioactive elements from nuclear reactors is a threat to human health, especially when mixed into unknown, untested cocktails with many of the 75,000 other toxic chemicals that are routinely poured, sprayed or dumped into the soil, water and air every day.

Since nuclear reactors can’t operate without exposing us to radiation, none is safe. Instead, all of them are permitted to expose workers and the public to an increased risk of cancer.


John LaForge of Luck, Wisconsin is on the staff of Nukewatch and edits its quarterly newsletter.