Oyster Creek: How Safe?

Oct 06, 2007

Letters To The Editor
Parsippany Daily Record

This week in Toms River, federal judges heard arguments about a corroded metal lining at the Oyster Creek nuclear reactor. Oyster Creek is the oldest of 104 U.S. reactors, and in just 19 months, its 40 year license will expire. AmerGen, which runs the reactor, has asked federal regulators to extend the license for 20 more years. The current case illustrates the concern that an old reactor with old parts is much too risky to keep open.

The memories of the meltdowns at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl may be dim, but not forgotten. And the terrorist threat since the September 11 attacks has added to the chance of a meltdown. Although nuclear plant operators have scrambled to improve security, the threat remains, and just one security slip could result in a disaster.

Nuclear reactors, far from being a “clean” form of energy, create enormous amounts of radioactive particles and gases. Some forms of radioactivity disappear quickly, but others remain for hundreds and thousands of years.

Oyster Creek puts a large number of people in harm’s way. When the reactor was proposed in the early 1960s, Ocean County had just over 100,000 residents. Soon the population will pass 600,000, and in the summer, this number swells with tourists heading to the shore. More alarming, there are over 4 million residents within 50 miles of the reactor, including Philadelphia and parts of New York City.

If the unthinkable occurred and mechanical failure or sabotage caused a large release from Oyster Creek, safe evacuation would be impossible. People trying to escape would be stuck on roads much more clogged than normal, breathing harmful radioactive gas in the process. Amazingly, federal law only requires a 10 mile radius to be evacuated, even though toxic gases and particles would travel much further.

A meltdown at Oyster Creek would be the worst environmental catastrophe in U.S. history. Thousands would suffer from acute radiation poisoning, a condition marked by nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, hair loss, and generalized weakness. Many others would suffer from various cancers, some fatal. Because radioactivity would remain in the local air, drinking water, fish, fruits, and vegetation, a substantial amount of land would become uninhabitable.

Even though the doomsday scenario hasn’t happened, a miniature meltdown occurs each day at Oyster Creek. All reactors must release a portion of the radioactivity they generate into the air. Local residents have been ingesting these toxic chemicals for years through breathing and the food chain.

Industry and government officials maintain that a small amount of radioactive exposure is not harmful. But is it? A 2005 panel of experts at the National Academy of Sciences concluded that all exposures cause damage. It has long been known that the damage is especially severe to the fetus, infant, and young child.Oyster Creek has one of the highest emission totals in the U.S. Levels of Strontium-90, one of the 100-plus chemicals produced in reactors, have been measured in hundreds of local baby teeth (strontium concentrates in bone and teeth), and average Sr-90 has doubled since the late 1980s.

Ocean County has the highest cancer incidence rate of any county in the state – and an especially high cancer rate in children. While many factors could contribute to cancer risk, radioactive releases from Oyster Creek must be considered as one of them.

The threat of a meltdown, and the daily addition of toxic chemicals into the environment constitute risks too great to justify keeping Oyster Creek running – especially since it produces only 7% of the state’s electricity. Global warming must be slowed, but there are safer ways to do it. With the state government committed to expanding clean energy sources like solar and wind power, it would be good public health policy to close the reactor.

Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.