Helen Caldicott: The growing threat from nuclear power


Richard Moore

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Our friend the Atom? The growing threat from nuclear power
Dr. Helen Caldicott

Jul 10, 2006

The Bush administration and the nuclear industry are embarking on an 
ill-conceived ³renaissance² of nuclear power, deploying the spurious message 
that it is emissions-free, green, safe, and will save the world from the effects
of global warming. Wrong, on all counts!

Carbon dioxide gas‹the increase of which is tied to global warming‹is released 
at every stage of the nuclear fuel cycle: uranium mining and milling, uranium 
enrichment, construction of huge concrete reactors, and the transportation and 
long-term storage of intensely radioactive waste. Nuclear power plants currently
generate ³only² one-third as much carbon dioxide as a similar-sized energy plant
fired by natural gas. But because the supply of highly concentrated uranium ore 
is limited, the energy eventually required to mine and enrich uranium will 
greatly increase. If global electricity production were converted to nuclear 
power, there only would be a three-year supply of accessible uranium to fuel the

Nuclear reactors routinely emit radioactive materials, including the fat-soluble
noble gases xenon, krypton, and argon. Although not chemically reacting with 
biological compounds, they are inhaled by populations near reactors, absorbed 
into the blood, and concentrated in the fat pads of the abdomen and upper 
thighs, which exposes ovaries and testicles to mutagenic gamma radiation.

Tritium, a form of radioactive hydrogen, is also regularly discharged by 
reactors. Combining with oxygen to form tritiated water, it absorbs readily 
through skin, lungs, and gut. Tritium is a dangerous carcinogen that produces 
congenital malformations and genetic deformities in low doses in animals and, by
extrapolation, in humans.

ADDITIONALLY, NUCLEAR reactors are potential terrorist targets. Reactor 
meltdowns could be induced by severing the external electricity supply, 
disrupting the 1-million-gallons-per-minute intake of cooling water, 
infiltrating the control room, or by a well-coordinated attack. Surprisingly, 
since Sept. 11 the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has failed to upgrade 
security at the nation¹s 103 nuclear reactors. A meltdown at the Indian Point 
reactors, located 35 miles from Manhattan, could render the region uninhabitable
for thousands of years.

Nuclear waste is the industry¹s Achilles¹ heel. Currently 60,000 tons of 
radioactive waste are stored temporarily in cooling pools beside nuclear 
reactors, awaiting final disposal. In 2002, Congress voted that the final 
repository for nuclear waste would be Yucca Mountain in Nevada, which is 
transected by 32 earthquake faults and consists largely of permeable pumice, and
thus is unsuitable as a radioactive geological waste receptacle. The U.S. now 
has nowhere to deposit its expanding nuclear waste inventory.

In countries with nuclear reactors, radioactive elements are leaking into 
underground water systems, rivers, and oceans, progressively concentrating at 
each level of the food chain. Carcinogens including Strontium-90, recently found
in the groundwater at the Indian Point reactors, and Cesium-137 are radioactive 
for 600 years. Food and human breast milk will become increasingly radioactive 
near waste sites. Inevitably cancers will increase in frequency within exposed 
populations, as will genetic diseases such as cystic fibrosis.

Each 1000-megawatt reactor produces some 500 pounds of plutonium each year in 
spent fuel rods. Plutonium is carcinogenic in amounts smaller than one-millionth
of a gram and can cause liver cancer, lung cancer, bone cancer, and leukemia. It
can cross the placenta to induce congenital deformities, and it has a 
predilection for the testicles where it may cause genetic abnormalities. Once 
released in the ecosphere, plutonium‹with a half-life of tens of thousands of 
years‹will affect biological systems essentially forever.

Critical mass for a nuclear explosion requires only 10 pounds of plutonium. 
Countries with nuclear reactors could therefore use radioactive waste to 
manufacture many nuclear bombs per year. The under-resourced International 
Atomic Energy Agency admits that it is physically impossible to prevent a 
determined country‹whether a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty of 
Nuclear Weapons or not‹from using imported uranium or plutonium to make nuclear 

Time is short. A truly informed national debate about the efficacy of nuclear 
power is long overdue.

Dr. Helen Caldicott is founder of Physicians for Social Responsibility and 
founder and president of the Nuclear Policy Research Institute. Her book Nuclear
Power is Not the Answer will be published in September 2006.

Our Friend the Atom? by Helen Caldicott. Sojourners Magazine, July 2006 (Vol. 
35, No. 7, pp. 11). Commentary.

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