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Time to examine nuclear ‘no harm’ mantra

In northeastern Japan this spring, radioactive cesium, among a gamut of radioactive particles spewed over the countyside in the meltdowns at the Fukushima nuclear plant, reappeared in tree pollen, causing yet more radiation-effect worries for the citizens.
Although contamination levels in pollen were extremely high in some places, the government asserted no danger to health, exposure being low when the floating pollen grains would be inhaled.
The “too-diffused-to-be-harmful” assertion is common when potential public-health consequences from pollution threaten vested industry interests or government needs; just as commonly, people have questioned it and sought redress.
Take, as an example, Nuclear Fuel Services in nearby Erwin. Its emissions perceived as the source of extraordinarily high rates of cancer death and disease, community citizens have long sought stronger regulatory safety controls and an assessment of the health risks they face.
The concerns are well founded. For one, the Environmental Assessment for the facility’s several major manufacturing processes reveals a large number of radioactive elements being released into the air, wastewater, and Nolichucky River. They include several isotopes each of uranium and plutonium, and thorium, cesium and technetium 99, many of these highly carcinogenic and remaining radioactive for hundreds or thousands of years.
Though the discharge doses are stated as well below the level of direct danger to people, their persistence and build-up in soil, water and vegetation, source of chronic exposure risk, was not examined.
Consider, then, that mushrooms, reindeer and wild boar in large parts of central Europe, and sheep in Cumbria and Wales are still radioactive today, unfit for human consumption a quarter century after the Chernobyl reactor explosion wafted radiation over much of Europe.
In a legal settlement a decade ago, the facility was found liable for contamination of groundwater near its site.
The presence of uranium and related, radioactive contaminants in Nolichucky River water and soil sediments, as far downstream as Davy Crockett Lake and beyond, was documented, determined through mass spectrometry analysis, two years ago.
A compilation of cancer registry data by the Northeast Regional Office of the Tennessee Department of Health, in 2006, indicated cancer as the second leading cause of death in Unicoi County.
It showed cancers trending upward there while the trend was flat or delining across the state as a whole. And in 2007, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Control classified the facility site a “Public Health Hazard,” although of “Indeterminant” nature since “critical information” could not be obtained by it during the course of a two-year study.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s recent acknowledgement of a “poor compliance history” by the facility gives further grounds to the citizens’ concerns.
To its credit, the Commission is now undertaking an assessment of cancer risk in populations living near nuclear sites in the United States, to be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences.
Six nuclear power plants will be studied in a pilot phase of the research, Nuclear Fuel Services being the only non-reactor nuclear facility selected for inclusion.