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Nuclear Deniability via the Media

by Michael Steinberg


When I sat down for breakfast with the local newspaper on November 17 of last year, the news was not very appetizing. The lead story, reprinted from the Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, told of a campaign by mothers from Port St. Lucie in St. Lucie County, Florida, to expose an alarmingly high rate of rare childhood brain cancers there. The mothers' group, "Suffer the Children," has raised an uproar in their community, forcing the Florida Department of Health to investigate. I put my spoon back in my oatmeal bowl, in an attempt to digest some of the grisly details in the report:

"For families, it has been a devastating ordeal. The diagnoses came after lengthy illnesses that were first labeled flus, ulcers and other less dire ailments. The children go blind, experience chronic vomiting, suffer strokes and, in many cases die. Those who survive face brain damage, stunted growth, and secondary cancers later in life, usually as a result of radiation and chemical therapies".

The article went on to point the finger at industrial chemicals in the environment as the possible cause of the cancers, noting that the national rate of rare brain cancers in children has increased almost 40% during the period from 1973-94. Also in this report, Dr. Philip Landrigan of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine in New York City noted that about 75,000 new synthetic chemicals have been developed over the past 50 years. He added that, "You're talking about 15,000 chemicals in common use around the country, and only about half of them have ever been tested."

A Slight Oversight

I found this news report very disturbing and its hypothesis about chemicals as the possible cause of these maladies quite plausible. But something seemed to be left out of the story, something I felt was equally disturbing. For the past several years, while writing a book about the 3 notorious Millstone nuclear reactors in my original homeplace of southeastern Connecticut, I've been doing extensive research into the possible effects of low level radiation on human health. The name St. Lucie rang a bell. I remembered from my research that the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Station was in Florida.

I dusted off some documents and consulted my U.S. road atlas. Sure enough, I found that the two nuclear reactors comprising the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Station are located on Hutchinson Island, a barrier island just off Florida's central east coast. Upon further examination I calculated that the St. Lucie reactors are about eight miles south of the Atlantic shore city of Fort Pierce. I wasn't surprised to find that the St. Lucie Nuclear Power Station was about the same distance due east of the city of Port St. Lucie, where the mothers have found clusters of brain cancer in their children. Due to Atlantic Ocean offshore winds, Port St. Lucie's location makes it directly downwind of the St. Lucie reactor's airborne radioactive releases. Of course, ionizing radiation, the type of radiation created and released by nuclear reactors, is known to cause brain and other types of cancers.

Next I checked the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission records for radioactive releases from the St. Lucie reactors, as reported by their owner and operator, Florida Power and Light Company. The NRC records showed that the St. Lucie 1 reactor, operating commercially since 1976, had released nearly 283,000 curies of airborne radiation into the environment through 1991. The St. Lucie 2 reactor, operating since 1983, reported airborne emissions through 1991 of almost 50,000 curies. Thus the reactors, through 1991, had released over 333,000 curies of radiation into the air, much of it probably drifting towards Port St. Lucie.

The NRC records also indicated that over these years the St. Lucie reactors had released over 6800 Curies of liquid tritium—radioactive hydrogen—into local waters. Community groups in western Massachusetts have implicated liquid tritium releases from the now defunct Yankee Rowe nuclear reactor as the cause of abnormally high rates of five kinds of cancer and Down's Syndrome. And in Suffolk County on New York's eastern Long Island, residents have filed a $2 billion lawsuit against the operators of a research reactor at Brookhaven National Laboratory, contending that its leaks of tritium and other radioactive substances into the groundwater have contaminated their community water supply.

More Damning Statistics

Finally, I consulted Dr. Jay Gould's 1996 book, The Enemy Within. In this book, subtitled "The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors," Gould and his associates in the New York City based Radiation and Public Health Project showed that US counties within 100 miles of a nuclear reactor had statistically significant higher rates of age-adjusted white female breast cancer deaths than counties located more than 100 miles from a nuclear reactor. The book breaks down this information into specific counties, in relation to specific reactors, as well.

When I looked up the statistics for St. Lucie I almost lost my lunch. Gould's numbers, based upon US Vital Statistics, showed that in St. Lucie County, the age-adjusted white female breast cancer mortality rate from 1950-54 was 6.5 deaths per 100,000 women. But the rate jumped to 20.7 for the years 1980-84, and 23.5 for 1985-89. Thus the rate of increase in these deaths, comparing 1950-54 to 1980-84, was 221%! And comparing 1950-54 to 1985-89, the increase was 263%.

Comparing the earlier five-year period to the latter two five-year ones showed identical 24% increases for the state of Florida as a whole for these breast cancer deaths. And nationally this mortality increased 2% from 1950-54 to 1980-84, and 1% from 1950-54 to 1985-89.

Long ago pioneer environmentalist Rachel Carson warned of nefarious health effects from the interaction of chemical and radioactive toxins. Carson, who herself died of breast cancer, termed this a synergistic phenomenon, meaning that the combined effects of different toxins in the environment could create harm to health greater than the sum of their individual effects.

The newspaper report I read last November did an excellent job of exposing the possible effects of toxic chemicals on human health, in this case on our children. But by failing to include radiation's possible effect, and not even mentioning the close proximity of the St. Lucie reactors to Port St. Lucie, it left crucial information out of the story. Perhaps the reporter was unaware of the St. Lucie reactors, or their potential role in causing an elevated rate of brain cancer in the children of St. Lucie. Unfortunately, this type of omission is still the rule rather than the exception in the national media.

When it comes to cancer and other dread diseases, the public needs to know about all the possible causal factors. The public deserves the opportunity to make informed decisions about an industry that significantly increases the risks to public health. For the media to deny to its readers or viewers key information relevant to the risk of exposure to the radiation releases of nuclear power plants seriously compromises their ability to make informed decisions. This plays into the implausible deniability of the nuclear establishment.


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