Nuclear Power and Public Health

By Clapp, Richard W. | Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2005 | Go to article overview

Nuclear Power and Public Health


Clapp, Richard W., Environmental Health Perspectives


Because of concern about the health and environmental effects of burning fossil fuels such as coal and oil to produce electrical energy in recent years, there has been a resurgence of interest in nuclear power stations as a "carbon-free" method of generating electricity. For example, an interdisciplinary study titled The Future of Nuclear Energy, released by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT 2003) suggests that there are four options for reducing carbon dioxide emissions from electricity: increasing efficiency, expanding renewable energy sources, capturing carbon dioxide and sequestering the carbon, and increasing use of nuclear power. This study and one of its authors have gotten considerable public attention in the past couple of years for putting the nuclear power option back on the table for discussion in the United States (Bane 2005).

Furthermore, evolving nuclear power plant technologies, including one design that has been described as inherently safe (Uranium Information Centre 2005), have been making their way through the review and approval processes in other countries. The so-called pebble bed modular reactor (PBMR) is now being proposed for construction in Cape Town, South Africa, and there is a lively debate in that country about whether such a design is verifiably safe, whether the country truly needs such a power plant, where the waste would be sent and whether those affected would have a political voice in the debate, and ultimately how the effort to approve and construct a PBMR in South Africa would impact this industry in the rest of the world (Groenewald 2005; Nuclear Engineering Department, MIT 2001). This debate is still under way, and it is being watched closely by interested parties. Updated plans for the South African project will be submitted to the utility regulatory body in 2006. The PBMR design would not be acceptable under current U.S. regulations because it does not require an expensive containment dome; this means that it is less expensive to build but is more vulnerable from a security standpoint.

A further question about the security of existing U.S. nuclear power plants arose in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nuclear power plants appear to have been a potential target of the organizers of these attacks; therefore, the exposure of spent fuel in aboveground storage tanks on the property of many commercial plants is a concern. New security arrangements and proposals for more secure dry-storage casks have been made, but long-term secure storage of high-level reactor waste remains an unresolved problem.

As the discussion of the nuclear power option moves forward, it is critically important to consider what is now known about the health and environmental risks of the nuclear fuel cycle, based on the lessons of the past 60 years (Cardis et al. 2005; Wing et al. 1997). There is now a large body of knowledge about the impact of uranium mining and milling, transportation of partially enriched ore, fabrication of fuel-grade material, power reactor operations, and waste disposal and decommissioning of commercial reactors. We have learned from disasters such as Chernobyl [United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) 2000], as well as the less obvious but long-term problems of disposal of mine wastes and mill railings and the ecologic impacts of this technology (Makhijani et al. 1996). We have also learned about the human health effects of low-level radiation exposure on workers exposed in the nuclear industry, most recently summarized in the BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) VII report [National Academy of Sciences (NAS) 2005]. The conclusions of this recent review, although couched in careful scientific language, indicate that carcinogenic effects of exposure increase proportionately with dose, especially regarding leukemia mortality, and that for some types of exposure the current regulatory controls in the United States may be insufficient. …

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