In Rebuttal: Overblown fears of nuclear power
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I am writing in response to the Dec. 6 Forum commentary by Ernest J. Sternglass, "Trade Nukes for Gas." In it Mr. Sternglass claims that there have been excess cancers in areas near nuclear power plants, which he explains as due to radioactivity released from those plants.
Mr. Sternglass gives essentially no numerical data to support his claim of these excess cancers and has never published such data in a peer-reviewed scientific journal; on the contrary, there have been many careful studies published in such journals and in official government reports which searched for excess cancers near nuclear plants and could find no evidence for them.
But even if there were such excesses in the particular areas Mr. Sternglass carefully selects, he cites no reason to believe that they are caused by releases from nuclear plants. There are many environmental causes for cancer, and many of them, such as air pollution, chemicals and the effects of poverty, are especially important near the big cities cited by Mr. Sternglass. He offers no evidence that radiation was the cause.
The rational approach is to consider the quantities of radioactivity released, which are carefully monitored and publicly reported by government agencies, and calculate what their effects might be. These releases expose nuclear-plant neighbors to less than 0.1 percent of the unavoidable exposures they receive from natural sources such as radon in their homes, natural radioactivity in the ground and in the bricks and stones of which our buildings are constructed, cosmic rays, etc., not to mention exposures of similar magnitude that we receive from X-rays and other medical procedures.
But scientists agree that even these natural and medical exposures cannot be responsible for more than about 1 percent of all cancers. Clearly then, the thousand-times-smaller exposures that nuclear-plant neighbors receive from those plants cannot be responsible for the effects claimed by Mr. Sternglass.
Mr. Sternglass has been making claims about excess cancers near nuclear plants for more than 45 years, never publishing them in regular scientific journals, but getting publicity from them in the mass media.
As a result of this publicity, the governor of Pennsylvania set up a fact-finding committee consisting of eight distinguished scientists, including some known to be opposed to nuclear power; the 1974 report of that committee completely rejected the Sternglass assertions.
Other statements rejecting such claims have come from state agencies in West Virginia, Illinois, New York and Michigan, and from the National Cancer Institute, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Public Health Service, the U.S. Bureau of Radiological Health, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the editors of Nature magazine and the American Journal of Public Health, and a unanimously endorsed statement released by all past presidents of the Health Physics Society, the principal scientific society involved with radiation protection. Several anti-nuclear activists have publicly announced that they do not support Mr. Sternglass' claims.
The fact that Mr. Sternglass was a professor of radiology at the University of Pittsburgh is irrelevant. His research here dealt with X-ray image intensifiers, not with health impacts of radiation.
Mr. Sternglass' proposal to convert the two nuclear plants near Pittsburgh to burning natural gas would cost several billion dollars, which would eventually be paid by us in our electric bills. Moreover, burning natural gas causes air pollution (albeit less than burning coal), which is a far greater threat to public health than the tiny radioactivity emissions from the nuclear plants, and it also contributes to global warming, which the use of nuclear power avoids.
First Published January 2, 2008 12:00 am