Only in print: The nuclear-safety debate hits home
New York’s Indian Point Energy Center — and its Fairfield County neighbors — are at the center of a growing national debate over the question: Do nuclear power plants pose serious health risks to those living near them?
Indian Point, with more than 17 million people living within a 50-mile radius, has long been the focus of health studies, many of them conducted by antinuclear groups.
Recent, yet-to-be-released testing by such a group in Fairfield County and nearby New York areas has found low levels of two types of radioactive strontium in the milk of goats, cows and humans. The results, expected to be released within weeks, were termed “striking” by one expert who reviewed the data provided to Hearst Connecticut Media Group.
Studies by another activist group have found strontium in the baby teeth of Fairfield County children.
Fueling the argument is the fact that many cancer rates in Fairfield County, downwind of Indian Point, are higher than national averages.
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Perhaps most strikingly, the county’s rate of thyroid cancer is well above the national average. Exposure to radiation is a risk factor for thyroid cancer. Thyroid cancer rates in New York counties near Indian Point are also much higher than the national average.
Overall cancer rates in Fairfield County also exceed national averages.
One example cited by activists is that according to state statistics, 62 cases of cancer were diagnosed from 2001 to 2005 in patients 19 and younger in Stamford and Greenwich — representing an incidence 40 percent higher than the national rate for such cases. The state does not dispute those numbers, but adds that in a later set of years, 2004 to 2008, the occurrence of such cancers in Stamford and Greenwich is more in line with national rates.
Nuclear-industry advocates and a spokesman for Entergy, the company that operates Indian Point, deny there is any risk. But some local residents strongly disagree.
Gail Merrill of New Canaan blames Indian Point for her own breast cancer.
“I’ve lost track of how many women in Fairfield County are dead from breast cancer,” Merrill says. “The people who live in these wealthier towns think they are safe. But I can tell you … it’s a big problem. Indian Point has to be shut down.”
Many experts would discount Merrill’s claims regarding the cause of her cancer. For most cancers, there is no way to conclusively prove — or disprove — radiation as a cause. But the Fairfield County cancer statistics continue to attract attention.
Nuclear-industry advocates dismiss the activists’ studies here and elsewhere as “junk science,” but across the country challenges are increasing from scientists armed with new data showing that cancer rates in children and adults increase regionally when nuclear plants begin producing electricity.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has insisted for the past two decades that there is no connection between the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants and cancer. That position is based on a 1991 study by the National Cancer Institute that found no link. But earlier this year, the NRC asked the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a new study, to be carried out over the next three years.
THE TOOTH FAIRY
In 2008, the Radiation and Public Health Project, a non-profit antinuclear group fronted by celebrities including Christie Brinkley and Alec Baldwin, published a study that linked higher-than-average cancer rates in Fairfield County to the Indian Point plant. It was a surprising allegation considering both the NRC’s position that nuclear plants do not cause cancer and the quality medical care available in the comparatively affluent area of lower Fairfield County.
The study continued earlier work by the RPHP which found startling levels of strontium 90 (SR-90) in baby teeth donated by parents living near nuclear plants, a study dubbed the Tooth Fairy Project. Strontium 90 exists only as a byproduct of nuclear fission.
According to the EPA, “strontium 90 is found in waste from nuclear reactors. It can also contaminate reactor parts and fluids. Large amounts of strontium 90 were produced during atmospheric nuclear weapons tests conducted in the 1950s and 1960s and dispersed worldwide.”
The body absorbs strontium in a similar way to calcium, and the isotope has been linked to bone marrow cancer and leukemia.
An RPHP study found that SR-90 levels in baby teeth had increased steadily since the 1980s in areas around seven U.S. nuclear plants, including Indian Point.
In 2008, the RPHP focused its attention on Fairfield County and found that:
– The southwestern portion of Fairfield County, which is downwind from Indian Point, has the county’s highest incidence of cancer.
– The recent cancer incidence in Fairfield County was 8 percent and 7 percent above the U.S. rate for males and females, respectively.
– The Fairfield County cancer death rate for those under 25 was 4 percent above the U.S. rate.
– Levels of SR-90 in found Fairfield County baby teeth were the highest in the New York metropolitan area, with the exception of the New York counties closest to Indian Point.
The RPHP also reported that between 1998 and 2002, the cancer incidence in Fairfield County was 8.2 percent above the national average for males and 6.7 percent above the national average for females.
According to the national tumor registry, the thyroid cancer rate in Connecticut between 2003 and 2007 was 14.5 cases per 100,000 people while the national rate is 10.2 cases per 100,000 people.
The RPHP, using 2001-2005 data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, found that thyroid cancer rates in counties closest to Indian Point were the highest in New York State and among the highest in the United States.
The thyroid cancer rate for the four New York counties flanking Indian Point — Orange, Putnam, Rockland and Westchester — over that period was 66 percent above the U.S. average, RPHP reported in a 2009 paper. Before Indian Point was built in the 1970s, the rate was in line with national averages, RPHP said.
“The Indian Point area is constantly being bombarded with routine and accidental releases of radiation,” said Susan Shapiro, a board member of the environmental advocacy group Hudson River Sloop Clearwater.
“The only major known cause of [thyroid cancer] is exposure to radioactive iodine, which is emitted into the air by nuclear plants,” said Joseph Mangano, Executive Director of the RPHP, which published its conclusions in the International Journal of Health Services.
The Connecticut Department of Health was more equivocal, saying that “risk factors for thyroid cancer include exposure to therapeutic radiation, radioactive fallout from nuclear weapons and power plants, family history, being female and being over 45 years old.”
State records show that the thyroid cancer rate among Connecticut women is highest in Fairfield and New London counties. The Millstone nuclear plant is located in New London County.
Between 2003 and 2007, Connecticut’s overall rate of thyroid cancer was 14.5 cases per 100,000 people, compared to the national rate of 10.2 cases per 100,000 people.
“Having one or more risk factors does not mean that a person will get thyroid cancer. Most people who have risk factors never develop cancer, and the exact cause of most thyroid cancers is not yet known,” the health department said in response to questions.
The health department acknowledged that thyroid cancer rates in Connecticut are higher than the U.S. average, although officials said the death rate remains low. The department attributed that in part to improved detection methods.
“Radiation is a cause of thyroid cancer. I can’t point to the plant but if it’s giving off radiation that’s a risk factor. This is more than just getting more CT scans. I am absolutely concerned. Nuclear radiation is a cause of thyroid cancer,” Richer said.
Nancy Burton, an attorney who has lobbied for more than 20 years to close the Millstone nuclear plant in Waterford, has been quietly collecting milk samples in the area around Indian Point, from human mothers, as well as cows and goats.
Burton first became interested in the milk issue in 2002 after discovering that the state Department of Environmental Protection had detected strontium 90 levels in milk from a goat named Katie, which had grazed on land about eight miles from the Millstone nuclear power plant in Waterford. One test found 55 picocuries per liter of SR-90 in Katie’s milk and Burton went public with the information, claiming the results were proof that Millstone was emitting dangerous radiation.
The DEP commissioned a study to explain the “Katie” results and concluded that the SR-90 came from either above-ground testing of nuclear weapons in the 1950s and early 1960s or the Chernobyl nuclear plant meltdown in the late 1980s. The study pointed out that other radioactive isotopes would also have to be present in Katie’s milk if the source was Millstone. The DEP added the levels were far below those deemed unsafe by government agencies.
“Millstone is not the source of radionuclides in these samples,” the DEP said.
Burton found a counter to that argument: She began testing for SR-89 as well as SR-90.
While both SR-90 and SR-89 are radioactive isotopes, they have different half-lives, which is the amount of time it takes for the radiation to decay or disappear. SR-90 has a half-life of 30 years, which means half of the material decays within 30 years and half of the remainder in another 30 years.
But SR-89 has a half-life of 50 days.
That means Chernobyl and atmospheric testing cannot credibly be considered sources of SR-89.
The so-called Mothers’ Milk Project has detected low levels of both SR-90 and SR-89 in scores of samples of milk from humans and animals. Burton believes the results are a smoking gun pointing directly at radioactive releases from Indian Point.
“Where else could it come from?” Burton said, noting strontium is only produced during nuclear fission.
Burton’s testing found a range of levels. For example, a 2011 test on milk from a goat at her Redding farm showed 2.1 picocuries per liter of SR-89. Annother test the same year found .4 picocuries of SR-89. A 2009 test of milk from a human mother in Orange County, N.Y., showed 3.3 picocuries of SR-89 and a 2008 test of a Dutchess County, N.Y., goat’s milk found 5 picocuries per liter.
A picocurie is a measurement of radiation. One curie is the number of disintegrations associated with the decay of one gram of radium, and a picocurie is one trillionth of a curie.
While the test results show SR-89, many of the amounts are below “detectable levels,” meaning some would interpret them to be “background noise” created as part of the testing process. Some, however, were above detectable levels.
“SR-89 is very significant because of the half-life,” said Ira Helfand, a past president of Physicians for Social Responsibility and an expert in the dangers of nuclear weapons and nuclear power. “It’s hard to blame those results on testing or Chernobyl. If the tests are accurate, there has been some release of SR-89. That’s kind of striking.”
Helfand agreed that SR-90 remains in the air from above-ground testing and the Chernobyl disaster, both of which poured dangerous amounts into the air that are still being detected today. Above-ground testing was ended in the 1960s after large spikes of SR-90 in milk were found.
Helfand said strontium levels in milk tested by Burton would probably cause no harm to older adults because their bones have stopped growing. But infants and children drinking the milk, especially from lactating mothers, could be at risk, he said.
David Lochbaum, a member of the Union for Concerned Scientists, said it’s hard to argue that the SR-89 being detected is the result of decades old weapons testing or Chernobyl. “SR-89 is time stamped. It can’t come from something in the 1960s,” he said.
That doesn’t mean it definitely comes from Indian Point, although it could, Lochbaum said, adding that other aging reactors in the Northeast could be the culprits.
“During the fallout pattern after Chernobyl, some areas 30 miles away received less contamination than areas 100 miles away. It depends on which way the wind blows,” Lochbaum said.
Patricia Milligan, a health physicist at the NRC, says that while it’s likely that some, if not most, of the Mother’s Milk numbers are “background noise,” she’s “interested” in the results, and added that it was the first report she’d received of SR-89 being found near a nuclear plant.
Milligan said that even in the samples in which it is reasonable to assume that strontium has been found, the amounts are too low to be harmful.
“It would take thousands of gallons consumed at these levels to get to the same level of exposure that you get flying from Los Angeles to New York City,” Milligan said.
Still, she said, “I appreciate her looking at this. I would like to see more results and we are interested in following up on these things.”
Burton’s testing was done by a certified laboratory in another state. Burton released test results to Hearst Connecticut Media Group on the condition that the lab would not be identified until Burton’s group makes an official announcement of the study’s results, which is expected shortly.
concerns over children
The RPHP’s Mangano also voiced concern over the number of cancer cases among children in Stamford and Greenwich.
“This fact should surprise many, as Greenwich and Stamford children should be healthier than those in other areas,” Mangano said. “The existence of this cluster in Greenwich and Stamford suggests that radioactive emissions from Indian Point may be playing a role,” Mangano said.
RPHP says it found similar cancer spikes in counties nearest the Seabrook nuclear power plant in New Hampshire and Vermont Yankee. Cancer rates in Rockingham County, N.H., where the Seabrook nuclear power plant is located, were found to be the highest of all 10 New Hampshire counties and the county rate for thyroid cancer was 23 percent above the U.S. rate.
In Vermont, the RPHP said state health department statistics showed that the cancer death rate in Windham County, where the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant is located, was five percent below the national average when the plant was built three decades ago and is now 10 percent higher.
Asked to comment on the RPHP findings regarding Connecticut, the Connecticut Department of Public Health, in a written response, said the incidence of the most common cancers — breast, lung, colorectal and bladder cancer — in Fairfield County is “not statistically significantly different” than the state rate. However, the department said, the incidence of prostate cancer among males in Fairfield County is “statistically significantly higher” than the state rate.
The department acknowledged that “the incidence … of all invasive cancers in the U.S. is statistically significantly lower than the rates of both Fairfield County and the State of Connecticut.”
Overall, the Connecticut health department noted that cancer rates in the nine Northeastern states, including New York, are higher than the U.S. rate for the most common cancers.
The department did not dispute the accuracy of the state numbers provided by Mangano for childhood cancers in Greenwich and Stamford in 2001 through 2005. But the department did say it believed the rates were not significantly different from the nation’s now. It picked a more recent time period, 2004 to 2008, and pointed out that there were only 42 cancers among people 19 years old and younger in Stamford and Greenwich, “one more than calculations based on current rates would predict.”
The department added that the “causes of childhood cancer are largely unknown.”
Pauline Cantwell, a Greenwich resident who does a talk show for WGCH radio, said she’s concerned about radiation coming from nuclear plants like Indian Point.
She said there is no such thing as a safe dose, despite the goverment’s contention that the small amount of radiation legally emitted from nuclear plants is harmless.
“We know Indian Point has been leaking tritium. A lot of (the plants) should have been shut down a long time ago,” said Cantwell.
Jim Steets, a spokesman for Entergy, owner of Indian Point, said the notion that strontium 90 is released from the plant is simply false because nuclear plants do not release the isotope. “It doesn’t make any sense that there is strontium in milk when it can’t be from Indian Point,” he said.
“When I see stories about a linkage to cancer it bothers me because it can’t be true. They see things and the problem with some of these studies is they go in looking for a connection to Indian Point. You won’t see a release of strontium from the plant. The design of the fuel is such that that would not happen,” Steets said.
But multiple experts rejected Steets’ assertions, saying that nuclear plants, including Indian Point, do indeed release strontium, and while fuel is designed to minimize that occurrence, it does happen.
Lochbaum, who is a former nuclear plant operator, said nuclear plants like Indian Point can and do release strontium, both during normal operations and as a result of accidents or incidents.
“The way it often happens is fuel rods develop a crack or hole,” Lochbaum said. “Strontium is released into the water (that cools the reactor) and is carried away. There can be defects over the years or rust gets in there and vibrates just enough to create space for it to leak out. There are systems to remove the particles and those filters have to be changed and in the process the water is collected and reused and then discharged into … water (in Indian Point’s case, the Hudson River). Venting of containment areas can release cesium and strontium. It’s not uncommon for it to occur.”
Asked if it’s possible for strontium to leak from a nuclear power plant, NRC spokeswoman Diane Screnci said, “Yes, it is possible. It’s one of the isotopes that are there so it could leak out. We have had some leaks. Strontium is usually something that ends up in water.”
There are federal limits on how much strontium can be released and plants must tally how much is released each year. Lochbaum said boiling water reactors like Vermont Yankee, which represent an older design, typically release more strontium on a regular basis than pressurized water reactors like Indian Point.
In a May report on radiation releases, Entergy said, “The levels of radionuclides in the environment surrounding Indian Point were within the historical ranges, i.e., previous levels resulting from natural and anthropogenic sources for the detected radionuclides. Further, Indian Point operations in 2010 did not result in exposure to the public greater than environmental background levels.”
The NRC is not impressed with the RPHP’s work and has dismissed its conclusions, taking the unusual step of publishing a lengthy rebuttal of the organization’s papers, many of which have been published in national scientific periodicals.
“A number of studies by the Radiation Public Health Project assert that levels of radioactive strontium-90 (SR-90) are rising in the environment and that these increased levels are responsible for increases in cancers, particularly cancers in children, and infant mortality,” the NRC said in its rebuttal.
“The group claims that radioactive effluents from nuclear power plants are directly responsible for the increases in SR-90. In one study, researchers reported that SR-90 concentrations in baby teeth are higher in areas around nuclear power plants than in other areas. This has sometimes been referred to as `The Tooth Fairy Project.’ However, numerous peer-reviewed, scientific studies do not substantiate such claims,” the NRC said.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, which is closely allied to the nuclear industry, called the RPHP’s work “junk science.”
“For several decades, a small group of activists has tried to instill fear in the public that a substance called strontium 90 is evidence that low levels of radiation released from nuclear power plants causes cancer and other health problems in nearby residents,” the NEI said.
“Since the claims first surfaced some 30 years ago, they have been dismissed continuously by mainstream scientists as scare tactics and `junk science,’ contributing nothing to finding the real causes of cancer. They are instead manipulations of the public without any basis in science,” the NEI said.
Strontium has also been found in the bones of fish caught in the Hudson River near Indian Point and the Connecticut River near the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant. In both cases, officials attributed the SR-90 to Chernobyl and years of above-ground weapons testing.
“It’s frustrating,” said Margo Schepart, co-founder of the Indian Point Safe Energy Coalition.
“I think these plants are emitting more than they admit.”
By Bill Cummings