The Nuclear Regulatory Commission will hold a public meeting
in Bloomsburg, Pa. this Tuesday, Aug. 19, to discuss its review of the application it expects for a new reactor at PPL's Susquehanna nuclear power plant
in Luzerne County near Berwick, about 28 miles northwest of Hometown.
"We're going to work with residents to help them understand the process and how they can participate, because they can provide valuable information," said David Matthews, director of the Division of New Reactor Licensing in the NRC’s Office of New Reactors.
PPL -- which is also planning to boost
the generating capacity of the plant's two existing reactors over the next two years -- wants to build and operate a new kind of nuclear reactor there known as a European Pressurized Reactor or Evolutionary Power Reactor. The EPR is designed by the French state-owned firm AREVA, a company under fire for uranium spills
from its Socatri nuclear waste processing facility that have contaminated rivers and groundwater in Provence. Nuclear safety advocates in Europe and the United States are calling for the plant's closure
"There has been a cascade of nuclear accidents in France over the last two months," said Linda Gunter, spokesperson for the Maryland-based group Beyond Nuclear
. "The fact that in both incidents at the Socatri plant there was a delay before the public was informed, raises some serious questions about the corporate behavior of AREVA, a company that has multiple nuclear contracts in the U.S."
This month brought yet another potentially hazardous incident at AREVA's Socatri plant: an "anomaly"
during receipt of a shipment from the French radioactive waste management agency. AREVA said the incident did not threaten public health or the environment; however, it did cause the facility to exceed a yearly emissions limit for radioactive carbon 14.
AREVA is also the maker of the experimental mixed-oxide fuel assembly that had to be removed
recently from one of Duke Energy's nuclear power plants in South Carolina after it underwent potentially hazardous physical changes, apparently due to problems with a proprietary experimental alloy called M5.
But as the Union of Concerned Scientists points out
, dozens of AREVA conventional uranium fuel assemblies using M5 are currently in the cores of several other U.S. reactors -- including Three Mile Island-1, which also lies along the Susquehanna River.
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PPL's plans to put an AREVA EPR near Berwick come as Luzerne and neighboring Schuylkill counties are already suffering unusually high rates of many cancers, including the rare blood malignancy polycythemia vera. A team of government-affiliated and independent scientists who studied polycythemia vera locally concluded
that the high rate locally is probably due to environmental factors -- although the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention disavowed
Among the environmental factors the medical literature
(pdf) associates with an excess risk of PV is low-level ionizing radiation. And despite the nuclear industry's claims that its power is "emissions-free," normally operating nuclear reactors do release low levels of radiation
to the environment. That's why they're required to file annual annual radiological environmental operating reports with the NRC.
PPL filed its latest radiological emissions report for the Susquehanna reactors
(pdf) in May. The company reported finding various radioactive pollution around the plant, but for the most part blamed it on other sources. The radioactive Iodine-131 activity detected in 13 of 36 surface water samples taken around the plant? Medical waste discharges upstream. Cesium-137 in sediment samples taken nearby? Nuclear weapons fallout.
The company did acknowledge that Iodine-131 was present in ambient air samples, but said the levels were so low they're hard to measure reliably. It also acknowledged detecting tritium -- a radioactive form of hydrogen created in reactors -- "in the aquatic pathway to man," but below regulatory limits.
Of course, those limits don't take into account the other
sources of radiation to which the people of Luzerne and nearby Schuylkill counties are exposed, which include naturally occurring radon as well as radionuclides from burning coal and coal combustion waste-dumping. Nor do they consider the many other toxic exposures, from historic waste dumping (including the notorious Butler Mine Tunnel case
) to current industrial emissions
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Though any increase in radioactive pollution due to the addition of another normally operating reactor would presumably be small, a growing body of research suggests that exposure to any
amount of radiation -- even at levels far below regulatory limits -- increases people's risk of cancer. In 2005, for example, the National Academy of Science released
the latest in a series of reports on health risks from radiation exposure, which found that the preponderance of scientific evidence shows exposure to radiation at even barely detectable doses can cause DNA damage leading to cancers.
"The scientific research base shows that there is no threshold of exposure below which low levels of ionizing radiation can be demonstrated to be harmless or beneficial," Richard Monson, a Harvard epidemiologist and chair of the research committee, said at the time. "The health risks -- particularly the development of solid cancers in organs -- rise proportionally with exposure."
Polycythemia vera is not the only cancer that occurs at an unusually high rate in Luzerne County: The Pennsylvania Department of Health's own official 2005 study
into cancer rates in Luzerne, Schuylkill and Carbon counties found that Luzerne's thyroid cancer rate is 45 percent higher than the state's rate -- which in turn is the nation's highest. In fact, the Pennsylvania counties with the highest rates of the disase are generally close to and downwind of four nuclear power plants, according to an analysis
by epidemiologist Joe Mangano with the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project
. Though that doesn't prove a causal relationship, it does seem to suggest the need for a closer examination of reactors' public health impacts.
(Map from the Radiation and Public Health Project website)
Besides polycythemia vera and thyroid cancer, the state health department study also found a number of other malignancies occurring in Luzerne County at rates significantly higher than the state's: cancers of the stomach, colon/rectum, larynx, bronchus/lung, uterine, prostate, and uterus, as well as leukemia, another cancer of the blood. In Schuylkill County, the study found significantly elevated rates of cancer of the buccal cavity/pharynx, colon/rectum, liver, pancreas, cervix, uterus, and prostate, as well as Hodgkin's lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes.
It will be interesting to see whether and how the NRC's reactor licensing process will address the obviously serious cancer problem already facing Luzerne and Schuylkill counties.
* * *Tuesday's meeting will take place at Bloomsburg University's Kehr Union Ballroom, 400 East Second St. from 7 to 9:30 p.m. Click here for a map and directions.
Labels: cancer clusters, luzerne county, nuclear power, polycythemia vera, PPL, schuylkill county, Susquehanna nuclear plant