Synthesis/Regeneration 10   (Spring 1996)

Sacrificed Communities

by Debby Katz, Citizens Awareness Network

Items below: A Green Policy For Waste
An Independent Commission to Re-Evaluate Radioactive Waste Policy

Pollution prevention, waste reduction, site remediation, and nuclear reactor operation, decommissioning, and waste disposal are ethical concerns fundamental to environmental justice and democracy. Citizens Awareness Network (CAN) addresses these issues from the position of a contaminated community. We speak for citizens in the effluent pathways of reactors and waste sites: poor, disenfranchised communities.

Here in the Deerfield River Valley in western Massachusetts, we lost our river to the Yankee Atomic Corporation. We are now fighting to regain control. This poor, rural community hosts two nuclear power stations 17 miles apart. We fight from the perspective of a sacrificed community; informed by our history of denial, intimidation, ignorance, and fear over a 30 year period. Our sacrifice is evidenced by an epidemic of disease which includes elevated rates of cancers, overall mortality, and Downs syndrome.

As imiseration expands in the current political climate among disenfranchised people, communities will be hard pressed to value health and safety over short-term financial relief. Some questions that polluted communities must confront :

A Green Policy For Waste

A green policy on radioactive waste must develop to protect the environment. Ordinary citizens needing to protect their children and future generations from expanding nuclear contamination will drive it.

  • Stop the creation and shipment of rad waste off-site . The waste solutions proposed by utilities pit sacrifice community against sacrifice community, exploit fears of contamination, support opportunism, and develop an illusory fallacy—i.e. reactors, "clean" when operating, are dirty and dangerous if waste remains on-site.
  • A democratic process must be initiated for an environmentally safe solution. The President must create a Blue Ribbon Commission on Waste. Let us not sacrifice any more communities.
  • NRC and the EPA must reexamine standards for the dosimetry (allowable exposure) for tritium. (We strongly urge zero exposure.)
  • The experimental nature of nuclear power must be recognized. In addition, it must be acknowledged that the health effects of exposure to nuclear waste on effluent pathway communities are unknown. Contamination studies must be initiated by citizens in partnership with scientists, to increase our understanding of long-term exposure to low-level radiation. These studies can be a laboratory in which techniques can evolve to further the study of contaminated communities.
  • Citizens must participate in the problem-solving process to create pollution prevention, source reduction, and waste storage techniques. We must accept that the world is our neighbor and that we can end the cycle of contamination and sacrifice.
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Nuclear power is a dirty technology. Everything it touches is contaminated. Before a reactor goes on-line, toxic waste is created with the mining of uranium. Once operational, reactor waste is stored on site for shipment to contaminate another community or released into the host community. No amount of radiation exposure is safe.

The dangers of exposure to radiation have been largely ignored. The focus of danger has been the accident and whether the technological safeguards protect us. However, the most important threat to reactor communities is the standard operation of a nuclear power station because the community becomes a radioactive waste dump. The waste dump is created through the radioactive releases that occur on a routine and regular basis. The community, as the waste dump, sustains untold suffering.

...the most important threat to reactor communities is the standard operation of a nuclear power station because the community becomes a radioactive waste dump.

Yankee-Rowe: The Experiment

Yankee Rowe was the first commercial nuclear power station in the US. It was an experiment. It operated for 31 years until the embrittlement of the reactor vessel and local citizen pressure closed it. The closure of the reactor was only the beginning of the work that was needed.

In researching the records of the reactor, we learned that it routinely released radioactive waste into the Deerfield River. Citizens were shocked. Our river is a recreational focus for our community. Over 500,000 people a year use the river. Because the NRC classified our river as a "dead river," the releases were not required to meet the EPA drinking water standards.

Yankee Atomic was one of the best run reactors in the country and yet our community is suffering. We were continuously exposed for 33 years. Our children swim in that river. Agricultural land is adjacent to the river. In drought, farmers pump water from the river to irrigate their crops. The river is used for white-water rafting. Spit and spume from the rapids are dispersed into the air. Air inversions blanket the river valley over 34% of the time, trapping the airborne contamination in the valley.

CAN compiled the history of effluent releases into the Deerfield. Due to faulty fuel rods, over 10,000 curies of tritium were released during the 1960's and 1970's. Before 1965, there was no requirement to quantify the amount of tritium released and therefore the large, early releases are unrecorded. All releases are within NRC acceptable limits.


Tritium, a radionuclide which disperses readily into the atmosphere, is routinely released from pressurized water reactors. It was considered benign with a half life of 12.5 years. Tritiated water passes through the body within 12 days. However when the tritium unites with carbon, it becomes organically bound and can remain in the body for 450 to 650 days. Recent research has reclassified tritium as a potent beta emitter, twice as carcinogenic, 2 to 5 times as mutagenic, and twice as teratogenic as previously believed. Epidemiologically, it is associated with Downs syndrome and birth defects; in animal research, it is associated with spontaneous abortion and breast and intestinal cancers.

The Advisory Committee on Environmental Standards in Canada recommended that tritium be classified as a dangerous enviro-toxin with tightened standards for tritium emissions. They would limit tritium releases to 100 becquerels per liter with an eventual design criterion of zero. The EPA standard is 740 becquerels per liter for drinking water.

Each exposure to radiation causes the development of at least one cellular lesion in the body. The body then has 6-12 hours to repair the damage. There are scientists who believe that there is a threshold below which the body does not recognize the assault and does not mobilize an immune response. If the lesion is not repaired, the cell can eventually divide and be carcinogenic.

Our community suffers from an epidemic of disease. We have 50% increase in overall mortality, 50% increase in five cancers, 10% increase in infectious disease, and 40% increase in heart disease leading to mortality. There is a ten-fold increase in Downs syndrome. We fear this epidemic is related to long-term exposure to low-level radiation.

Epidemiological Studies

CAN has worked with the MA Department of Public Health (DPH) for four years in a "preliminary investigation." We assembled a pro-bono team (epidemiologist, meteorologists, geologists) to understand the contamination pathway. CAN pressured the DPH to investigate the concerns of our community including the families of children with Downs syndrome and women concerned with increases in breast cancer.

Educating our community in the long-term effects of low-level radiation, we organized support from the county commissioners, state and federal legislators for a health study. When we were unable to get prior notification of releases from the reactor, we posted warning signs along our river to alert citizens to these releases.

The standard epidemiological model...confuses objectivity with indifference by disqualifying those who are concerned as unable to be "objective."

The standard epidemiological model is ineffective. It confuses objectivity with indifference by disqualifying those who are concerned as unable to be "objective." Concern cannot disqualify communities who seek the truth. The denial by scientist of the contamination pathway and the refusal to value community participation renders the results inconclusive and distorted. If the studies undertaken are not a partnership between scientists and the community, our humanity is lost in insignificant, irrelevant statistics.

An Independent Commission to Re-Evaluate Radioactive Waste Policy

by Michael Mariotte, Nuclear Information & Resource Service

The nuclear industry endorses the concept of "interim" off-site storage, which essentially means "move it anywhere but get it off our property." Most "interim" storage schemes would place high-level waste either in Nevada (apparently because of the dubious Yucca Mountain connection, since Nevada has no nuclear power plants) or on Native American lands.

"Interim" storage is not a solution. It is simply a stop-gap measure aimed at removing the waste from where it now rests-with the nuclear utilities-in order to give utilities room to make still more waste-with no permanent solution in sight, and to transfer the liability for accidents from the utilities to taxpayers.

More than 120 environmental groups, plus three dozen federal legislators, governors, and numerous others have endorsed establishment of an independent Presidential Commission to completely review and re-evaluate our nation's radioactive waste policy. In March 1995, Sen. Richard Bryan and Sen. Harry Reid, both of Nevada, introduced S. 544, which would establish such a commission.

The independent Presidential Commission would consist of recognized scientists, representatives from state government agencies, members of affected and potentially-affected communities, and ordinary citizens. During the two-year charter of the Commission, no federal licenses could be issued for radioactive waste storage, except for temporary on-site storage (most "low-level" radioactive waste dumps are licensed by the states).

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