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April 23, 2011

Nuclear risks as scary now as 32 years ago


Daily Star

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A little more than 32 years ago, a small group of homesteaders huddled in a cabin on a Fingers Lakes hilltop on the day a nuclear emergency was declared at the Three Mile Island nuclear-power plant near Harrisburg, Pa.

The wind was blowing from the southwest, and we didn't know what the impact would be in our area or what to do about it. I was especially concerned because my wife was pregnant with our first child.

We were familiar with the Clamshell Alliance and the battle over the Seabrook plant on the New Hampshire coast, and also the nuclear-waste site at West Valley. But we realized we knew very little about the effects of radiation as it travels windward through the atmosphere.

The anniversary of the TMI nuclear accident, the worst ever in the United States, was March 28. On that date in 1979, the plant's cooling system failed, causing a partial meltdown. Tens of thousands of gallons of radioactive wastewater were released into the Susquehanna River, and there was a large release of radioactive gases, including iodine-131.

We lived about 170 miles from TMI, the way the eagle flies, and likely were either paranoid or naive about the danger to us. We decided not to flee to the north, but instead eat a lot of apples for the pectin that would help save our thyroids from the radioactive iodine.

While "TMI" has come to stand for "too much information," back then and to this day there remains anything but common knowledge about the effects of radiation.

The crisis at Fukushima has forced tens of thousands of people to evacuate, radiation leaks have contaminated crops and fishermen have been unable to sell their catches. But the government somehow has been able to tell people that radiation levels "do not pose an immediate or significant threat to the public."

The long-term issue, however, is the radiation that has entered the food chain, and the chances that it could cause cancer and other health problems.

Since radiation from Japan has been found in American drinking water, milk and rain, we can only hope that our experts have a greater grasp of possible impacts than they did back in the 1950s when North Americans were pummeled with fallout from nuclear bomb tests out West.

You can't help but wonder why my generation seems to be much more prone to cancer. Well, children of the '50s were told to drink lots of milk, and on occasion it easily was contaminated from bomb-test fallout. Radioactive isotopes accumulate in milk after falling to the ground in rain or dust and settling on vegetation or feed eaten by dairy cows.

According to data released by the Environmental Protection Agency on April 8, radiation from Japan had been detected in the drinking or rain water of numerous American cities, including Albany, and cesium-137 was found in milk from as close as Vermont.

It is clear now that radiation released into the atmosphere can be detected half a world away.

Against this backdrop, the future of this country's nuclear-power industry, lauded by President Obama as a means to cut back on fossil fuels, must be questioned. In fact, a recent Associated Press-GfK poll showed that 60 percent of Americans oppose building more nuclear power plants.

And not only that. The poll also found that most Americans have doubts our government is prepared to respond to a nuclear emergency such as the one in Japan.

Oh, great, you say. Just as the price of gasoline surpasses $4 a gallon, and with nuclear power offering a clean and efficient alternative to oil, this radiation accident had to occur.

Perhaps it is a good thing _ not for the Japanese, of course, but for our energy policy. While nuclear power is clean and efficient, the process of boiling water with the controlled heating of nuclear fuel rods is risky for a variety of reasons, not just earthquakes and tsunamis.

The U.S. should use the Fukushima crisis as a spur to more vigorously pursue other fossil-fuel alternatives, such as solar and wind. The president should recognize this and change his position on nuclear power.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor of oneontatoday.com. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.