How can celebrity anti-nuclear power activists Alec Baldwin and Christie Brinkley try, in good conscience, to scare us about both carbon-free nuclear power and global warming?
In a February 12 press release about the relicensing process for the Indian Point nuclear power plant in Westchester County, New York, two anti-nuclear activist groups claimed that they were “not convinced” by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s preliminary determination of the plant’s safety.
The Radiation and Public Health Project and the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater pointed to data indicating that thyroid cancer rates in three nearby counties were higher than the national average and that strontium-90 was detected in breast milk samples taken from within 50 miles of Indian Point, with the highest results occurring in samples taken closest to the power plant. Not surprisingly, the activists concluded that, “This suggests that emissions from Indian Point may be compromising the health of local residents.”
Also not surprisingly, that’s not the entire story.
First, Indian Point’s radiation emissions are well within long-established safety levels. According to stringent standards set long ago by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the maximum allowable amount of radiation from Indian Point that could be absorbed by someone is 25 millirem per year. But according to the NRC, the hypothetical maximum dose that anyone could possibly have absorbed from Indian Point is only about 7 millirem per year — a dose dwarfed by what is typically absorbed from unavoidable natural and other manmade radiation sources.
The average person in the U.S. receives a dose of about 360 millirem per year, according to the EPA. About 80 percent of this dose comes from rocks and soils, mostly in the form of radon, and cosmic radiation from space. These natural doses can vary greatly depending on where you live.
People who live in Denver, for example, receive an extra 50 millirem per year of cosmic radiation simply because of the city’s mile-high altitude.
The other 20 percent of the typical annual radiation dose comes from man made sources — mostly mammograms and diagnostic x-rays.
Living near a nuclear power plant typically adds less than 1 millirem to annual radiation doses, according to the EPA. The 7 millirem figure calculated by the NRC for Indian Point doesn’t represent an actual dose received by anyone. It is calculated as a maximum possible absorbed dose if someone were to be exposed to maximum emissions at the plant’s boundary line for a year. Such exposures are obviously unlikely ever to occur.
Further, the 25 millirem regulatory level set by the EPA is more of an arbitrary standard than a true safety level. There is great debate in the scientific community as to whether such low-level doses of radiation are at all dangerous. Kerala, India, for example, has a relatively high-level of natural background radiation and many residents absorb as much of 2,000 millirem of radiation annually with no reports of increased cancer incidence.
JunkScience.com once measured the radiation emanating from granite statues in the U.S. Capitol Building and discovered that a person standing in statuary hall near the Senate Chamber would absorb 5 times more radiation than would be absorbed by standing at the fence line of a nuclear power plant.
So the radiation that someone could be hypothetically exposed to from Indian Point isn’t worrisome. So what’s the explanation for the higher thyroid cancer rates in the counties surrounding Indian Point? There isn’t one.
First, given the southerly direction of the region’s prevailing winds, two of the three counties (Orange and Putnam) are actually upwind of Indian Point. If plant emissions were increasing cancer rates, you would expect to find those cancers downwind of the plant. Although Rockland County, which lies to the south and west of Indian Point, has an elevated incidence of thyroid cancer, that rate is lower than in upwind Putnam. Next, the cancer rate in Westchester County — where Indian Point is located and where maximum radiation exposures would be expected as it is south and east of the plant — is lower than those in Rockland, Orange and Putnam. Also, there are several other New York counties, upstate and far away from Indian Point, that have thyroid cancer rates similar to the three counties near Indian Point. This geography, however, is largely academic since the maximum exposures to which the public could possibly be exposed are at the plant’s fence line and there is no evidence of a cancer cluster among those who live and work closest to the plant.
As to the strontium-90 allegedly found in breast milk samples, the NRC says that the low levels detected in the environment surrounding Indian Point “are consistent with decayed quantities of activity from historic atmospheric weapons testing.”
While thyroid cancer seems to be on the rise in the U.S. and New York State, no one really knows what exactly causes the disease. The New York State Health Department speculates that part of the reason for the increase may be the expanded use of radiation to diagnose and treat medical conditions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that at least part of the reported increase in thyroid cancer rates is likely explained by improvements in detection and diagnosis. The good news is that deaths from thyroid cancer are not increasing.
What’s left, then, is a bunch of celebrity anti-nuclear power activists at the Radiation and Public Health Project — including the likes of Alec Baldwin and Christie Brinkley — seemingly bent on scaring people about nuclear power for no good reason.
Since they believe that man made carbon dioxide emissions drive climate change, you’d think that they would embrace nuclear power as a carbon-free form of generating electricity. Brinkley says that:
“unless we stop global warming in the next 10 to 20 years, our children face a future so bleak and frightening, it brings tears to my eyes just to think of it.”
Baldwin narrated a National Geographic documentary that likened global warming to “doomsday.”
If Baldwin and Brinkley really believe that humans are causing catastrophic global warming, it would seem that they ought to be scaring up, not scaring off support for nuclear power.