Special to The Mississippi Link
Local death rates for fetuses and infants rose rapidly and immediately after startup of the Grand Gulf nuclear reactor in southwest Mississippi, a high-poverty area with an African-American majority, according to a medical journal article just published.
The study was released at a time when a second reactor has been proposed at the Grand Gulf plant (in Port Gibson Miss., on the Mississippi River 25 miles south of Vicksburg). The article, which was published in spring issue of the International Journal of Health Services, is the first to examine hazards of nuclear reactors to poor minorities.
“Results raise several areas of concern,” said study author Joseph Mangano MPH MBA. “It confirms findings of many scientists that the young are most susceptible to radiation exposure. But it also supports the belief that reactors may cause greater harm to poor minorities. If this is true, building a new reactor at Grand Gulf may represent a case of environmental injustice.” Mangano is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP), a New York-based research group that studies radiation health.
“This study is very important because we always hear from Grand Gulf officials how safe the plant is, with no regard paid to studies like this,” said A. C. Garner. “This is a very needy community; we want the industry to be accountable to local residents.” Garner is political action chairman of the Claiborne County (MS) chapter of the NAACP, and former county director for Emergency Management of the Grand Gulf plant.
Five counties (Claiborne Miss., Jefferson Miss., Warren Miss., Madison La., and Tensas La.) are within 30 miles of Grand Gulf, which started in August 1982. In 1983-84, the infant death rate rose 35.3% from the two years prior (69 deaths vs. 55) and the fetal death rate rose 57.8% from the two years prior (60 deaths vs. 41). National rates fell 7%. Both increases were statistically significant, and were the largest near any U.S. nuclear plant.
Mangano also found the local infant death rate for the past 22 years is virtually unchanged from the early 1980s, indicating that the rise in the first two years Grand Gulf operated was not a fluke. Data are from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
For two centuries, blacks have constituted the majority of residents in the five counties (now 58.5% of 88,500). The local poverty rate is 23.5% (nearly double the U.S. rate of 12.4%). Educational achievement is low, and unemployment is high. In Claiborne County Miss., the home county of Grand Gulf, the percent of African-Americans is 84.6%.
Although the last U.S. nuclear reactor order occurred in 1978, utility companies have recently proposed building 30 new units, many in the southeast. Several are located in poor counties with high proportions of African-Americans.
Entergy Nuclear of Jackson Miss., which owns and operates Grand Gulf, has applied to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) for a license to build a new reactor at the site. In 2004, the NRC rejected a legal action by several citizen groups that the proposed Grand Gulf reactor violates environmental justice laws. These groups include the Nuclear Information Resource Service, Public Citizen, and the local NAACP chapter.
Nuclear reactors pose a health hazard due to the large amounts of over 100 radioactive chemicals they produce in their core and store in their waste pools. These chemicals (gases and particles), some of which do not decay for many years, must be constantly cooled with water; any loss of cooling water from mechanical failure or terrorist attack would result in a meltdown afflicting many thousands with radiation poisoning or cancer.
A potential meltdown is not the only health hazard posed by reactors, which must release some of the radioactivity it produces into the local air and water. Humans ingest them by breathing and the food chain. These exposures are low doses, but a 2005 report by the National Academy of Sciences concluded that there is no safe exposure level. Sharp rises in fetal and infant deaths near Grant Gulf may represent consequences of these exposures.
The 100-plus radioactive chemicals in reactors are the same as those produced when nuclear weapons explode. The article also documented a 42.9% rise in infant deaths in the same five counties in the first two years after above-ground atomic bomb tests in the early 1950s sent fallout across the U.S., entering bodies through diet after precipitation.
RPHP members have published 22 medical journal articles and 7 books on the health risks of nuclear reactors. To obtain an abstract of the article, go to www.nlm.nih.gov, then click “Pub Med” and enter “Mangano AND Mississippi.” Copies of the full text are available from the author.