HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas

Nuclear Reactors: Energy vs. Health

In this time of rolling blackouts that threaten to roll past California all the way to the Northeast, few Americans have criticized nuclear energy. Admittedly, it hasn't lived up to its early hype: President Eisenhower promised that it would render electricity virtually free. Nor has nuclear power proved especially efficient: The operating and start-up glitches have cost millions of dollars. Yet it constitutes a significant niche in this nation's generation of energy -- and may soon constitute a major energy niche throughout the developing world. It does not rely on the political vagaries of oil-rich nations in the Middle East. It does not run out.

Except for the specter of cancer, we might all embrace nuclear power enthusiastically. That specter, though, dampens genuine enthusiasm. Everybody recognizes the hazards of Chernobyl-type meltdowns. And no woman of child-bearing age wants to work in a nuclear power plant. As for waste, engineers try to store it in remote caverns.

The link between normal reactors and disease, however, has been the irritating worry. Are people living near a nuclear reactor increasing their risks of getting sick? If so, by how much? More than if they lived near a coal-burning plant? More than from exposure to "normal" radiation? "Statistical significance" is the lodestar of analysts, who ask: Is the difference between group A and group B due to chance? Even when they judge "no", the search for the one bogey -- possible in the world of a controlled laboratory -- is difficult outside the lab.

If a cancer cluster emerges downwind from a reactor, the reactor may be to blame. But so may the lifestyles of the residents, or their genes, or their diets, or some other carcinogen. Plucking the key environmental factor from the lifestyle ones -- especially if they too cause cancer -- is a statistician's conundrum. Women living on Long Island contract breast cancer more than women living in Utah. Why? Is it the nearby reactor?

The time-lag of cancer makes the search for "causation" even more elusive: People exposed to a carcinogen may not show the effects until decades later. In 1998 scientists reported "hot spots" of radiation over 3000 times the tolerance level when fuel rods travelled from a power station in Germany to France -- but nobody today can foretell the 30-year impact of those hot spots. Not even Erin Brokovich.

So, even while we depend on nuclear energy, most of us have looked past the cautionary tales. The Tooth Fairy project measured levels of strontium in the baby teeth of children born near some nuclear reactors; the results showed higher than normal levels. Anti-nuclear protesters have warned of Love Canal-type disasters; but hard data have not conclusively verified their qualms. Government scientists even reassured us that they "contained" all the damage at Three Mile Island (although the Supreme Court has allowed neighbors to sue).

Optimism has blunted our concern. We expect -- or at least hope -- that eventually all scientists will pronounce nuclear power perfectly safe and put to rest the hysterical hype of Birkenstock-clad protesters, whose protests have carried a Luddite whiff. Indeed, protesters warned of the dangers of cell phones; a soaring number of phonaholics have ignored those warnings; and today, reams of data later, researchers have judged cell phones safe. We want nuclear power to get that same imprimatur.

From 1987 to 1995, though, five nuclear reactors closed, giving scientists time to assess the impact of their absence. Epidemiologists from the Manhattan-based Radiation and Public Health Project tracked the incidence of infant defects in reactors near Denver, New London (Conn.), Sacramento, Portland (Ore.), and LaCrosse (Wis.) after the closings -- a quasi-clinical experiment.

The results are disquieting. After the reactors closed, infant death rates near those reactors dropped dramatically -- an average 18% in the first two years post-closing. Throughout the country, infant death rates were also dropping -- but the nationwide decline of 6.4% was not so dramatic. When two other reactors closed (in Michigan), infant death rates nearby fell 33.4% and 54.1%.

Across the nation, the licenses of 28 reactors will be expiring over the next few years. Proponents (and investors) will want to renew those licenses, arguing that our voracious appetite for energy has strained the supply. Nuclear reactors keep lots of air conditioners, heaters, computers, and televisions whirring away. Yet those reactors may also be generating a number of cases of cancer. Forty-two million Americans live within 50 miles or downwind from a reactor. Perhaps, as we plan for the current energy crisis, health should trump energy.

Joan Retsinas is a sociologist who writes about health care from Providence, R.I.

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