New Internationalist

Blowin’ In The Wind

Issue 198

new internationalist
issue 198 - August 1989

Blowin' in the wind
The nuclear industry says the peacetime use of the atom is safe.
But that's not what those who live beside the reactors
are saying. Ellen Hosmer tells the story.

Tom Bailie has lived near the Hanford Nuclear Weapons plant in Washington State all his life. But until a few years ago it never occurred to him that his neighbor was slowly poisoning him and his family. His father and mother had cancer, grandparents on both sides of the family had cancer, his two sisters had cancer. He was born with birth defects and has thyroid disease.

He is convinced the sprawling nuclear weapons complex that churns out plutonium for the nation's nuclear arsenal is fully to blame. Of the 28 farms downwind of the plant, 27 have had cancer, heart disease, miscarriages and genetic abnormalities.

Today, the nuclear weapons industry is big business: 20 facilities employ 90,000 people, with a budget over eight billion dollars a year. But the system is in trouble. Aging reactors have contaminated workers, local residents and the environment. There are nearly 2,000 waste sites at weapons facilities, many for radioactive material.

Most of the reactors producing weapons-grade materials were built in the 1950s. In the last several years they've been plagued with problems. The Savannah River plant in South Carolina and the Hanford plant, two of the major plutonium and tritium producing sites, have both had reactors shut down.

In one of the worst examples of recklessness, the Hanford plant released massive quantities of a radioactive isotope of iodine into the air between 1944 and 1956. The information was divulged by the Department of Energy (DOE) only after a local citizens group sued under the Freedom of Information Act. Another release was conducted just to see what it looked like, so similar Soviet experiments could be monitored. Officials tracked the radioactivity as it spread over the population, but gave no warnings and acknowledged no health problems.

'They did deliberate research on us,' said Bailie. 'Somebody should be brought up on manslaughter charges.'

For the 'downwinders', as they came to be known, the releases were devastating. According to the Atlanta-based Center for Disease Control, the risk of thyroid cancer for the 20,000 to 30,000 children in the area has increased between five and 15 times.

At other sites there have been similar releases and similar cover-ups. Some of the worst have been at the Feed Materials Production Center in Fernald, Ohio. The DOE and its contractor released 297,000 pounds of uranium and dumped huge amounts of radioactive waste into the environment. Water supplies have been contaminated.

Cleaning up and decontaminating the sites may be one of the most costly defense expenditures in history. Already the Department of Energy agrees it will take over $100 billion and some 50 years. There are over 1,000 dump sites at the Hanford plant alone. Some 200 billion gallons of radioactive wastes have been dumped in open ponds. Frances Hart of the local watchdog group, Energy Research Foundation, says the Savannah River clean-up will take $24 billion.

Cancer clusters around nuclear power reactors (as opposed to weapons plants) have long been recognized but little analyzed. Around the infamous Sellafield Nuclear Fuel Reprocessing Site in the UK, there has been a ten-fold increase in leukemia deaths and an almost four-fold increase in deaths from other cancers.

In the US, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found disturbing results when it looked at cancer rates around the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Plant in Plymouth. The leukemia rate for men was 76 per cent above the State average.

Grassroots groups representing communities near reactors have sprung up all over the US. And they all have similar demands. First, they want a clear assessment of the health risks; but more importantly they want independent committees with plenty of citizen participation to oversee the nuclear weapons industry. Residents no longer trust the Department of Energy.

'If a foreign power knowingly and deliberately dumped hundreds of tons of radioactive uranium into the air, and thousands of pounds of uranium waste into the groundwater, we would surely call that an act of chemical and radiological warfare,' says Physicians for Social Responsibility. 'It is difficult to understand why it is permissible for an agency of the US Government to do the same thing to its own citizens.'

Ellen Hosmer works with Multinational Monitor.

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