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The recent report on public health near the 30-year-old Diablo Canyon nuclear plant is the first of its kind analyzing how much radiation was emitted from the plant, how much entered people's bodies, and trends in local disease and death rates.

A potential meltdown at Diablo Canyon was only briefly addressed. But a meltdown isn't needed for humans to be harmed by reactors.

Reactors regularly emit some radiation into local air, water and humans. The report used federal data to show releases into local air and water may be higher than most U.S. nuclear plants. It cites a study of radioactive strontium-90 in baby teeth showing high and rising concentrations of this dangerous chemical in local children.

The report also contained federal data showing that cancer rates in San Luis Obispo County have risen in the past quarter-century, compared to the state. The county cancer rate, which had been below the state rate for years, is now the highest of all 20 counties in the southern half of California.

Within the county, the area closest to the plant has rapidly rising infant death and low-weight birth rates. The fetus and infants are most susceptible to damage from radiation exposure, as their rapidly-dividing cells are less likely to self-repair than an adult's.

Utility officials took issue with the study, but they have a vested interest in Diablo Canyon, and thus are biased. They also are not health researchers. Even if they were, they could cite no research showing Diablo Canyon has been safe for local residents.

Scientific studies on pollution and health are frequently criticized at first, but later are accepted, leading to changes. Rachel Carson's 1962 book, "Silent Spring," on hazards of pesticides was denounced by industry leaders. Within a decade, the Environmental Protection Agency was created, and pesticides like DDT were banned.

Physician Alice Stewart was lambasted by critics after finding X-rays to abdomens of pregnant women doubled the chance the child would die of cancer. More studies confirmed Stewart's findings, and this practice ended.

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Decades of government assertions that fallout from atom bomb tests in Nevada wasn't harmful ended in 1999, when the National Academy of Sciences estimated fallout caused up to 212,000 thyroid cancers in the U.S. Many studies, mostly outside the U.S., found high rates of child cancer near nuclear plants.

The report is just a beginning. Officials should examine potential health risks, and share findings with the public. As Diablo Canyon ages, a report card on plant safety and health is merited.

The nuclear industry once envisioned 63 reactors would operate in California. Safety and economic concerns limited the number that actually opened to just seven. All have closed, except for the reactors at Diablo Canyon.

Several journal articles showed immediate and drastic declines of local infant deaths and child cancers after reactor shutdown. Another showed significant declines in Sacramento County cancer rates, in the 20 years after the Rancho Seco reactor closed.

Radiation releases and health should be the most critical issue for officials and citizens, as the debate on Diablo Canyon continues.

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Joseph J. Mangano is a health researcher, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, and author/co-author of 32 medical journal articles.

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