We need to reconsider concerns about nuclear power

We need to reconsider concerns about nuclear power
© Getty Images

In the 22nd century, as our descendants struggle with the health and societal implications of global climate change, they will be both angered and puzzled by our decision to decrease our use of nuclear power. Particularly bewildering is why this happened in the early decades of the 21st century when the powerful impacts of climate change were becoming abundantly clear, and the scientific basis for the longer terms risks of nuclear power was demonstrably diminishing for one of the key issues — that of cancer due to radioactivity — and particularly nuclear waste.

In just the two decades following the political decisions that have blocked storage of nuclear power wastes in Yucca Mountain Nevada the risks of serious health impacts from global climate change have become increasingly evident. During the same period there has been a significant continuing decline in cancer mortality promising that our 22nd-century descendants will be far less concerned about what to us has been a dread disease.

In the late 20tth century, expert committees were told to evaluate geological factors that would affect nuclear waste containment up to 1 million years from now, but not to consider biological factors such as the impact of radiation-induced mutation on the risk of clinical cancer. In 1995, U.S. age-specific cancer mortality began to decline. By 2018, we reached an overall 27 percent decline in age-specific cancer mortality, and the rate is now declining steadily at 1.5 percent per year. This is partly due to acting on smoking and other preventable cancer risk factors. But it also represents major ongoing advances in the early detection and treatment of cancer.

ADVERTISEMENT

These advances, including enhancing the body’s ability to prevent and correct mutational events, and the use of gene-centered and immune techniques to destroy early cancer cells, almost certainly will accelerate. While 1.5 percent is not a dramatic decline in a year, it is a substantial decrease during the period of many decades when we will be faced with the extensive health and economic impacts of global climate change. 

After long deliberation, and billions of dollars of technical evaluation, the site chosen for storage of U.S. nuclear power wastes was on federal lands adjacent to nuclear test sites in Yucca Mountain, Nevada, an arid desert region. Leakage of stored nuclear wastes during future millennia might occur, but the worst- case scenario is that such leakage is at least a century and probably thousands of years away. In other words, the first person to get cancer due to the earliest likely loss of containment of nuclear waste at Yucca Flats has not yet been born.

In contrast, the serious impacts of climate change are affecting people today.  NOAA’s records of annual temperatures, beginning in 1880, show the last five years to have collectively the highest global temperatures ever recorded. These are not just numbers. Water temperature, which drives the energy of hurricanes, has steadily increased along with the ferocity of hurricanes hitting the U.S. Contributing to increased flooding is that hot air holds more water that is released as rain, and rising sea level gives a higher baseline for flooding to begin. The scientific credibility has increased of the potential for catastrophic events, such as the abrupt loss of the Antarctic ice cap leading to flooding of coastal cities, and migrations intensifying the threat of conflict due to loss of local food sources.

Just in Europe and the US, deaths from unprecedented heat waves since 2000 are in the tens of thousands, a number likely to be far higher in less developed parts of the globe. Before even one case of cancer due to loss of nuclear waste containment can be anticipated, the direct and indirect death toll from climate change globally likely will be in the millions. 

Further, while the expert committees on nuclear waste were charged to determine whether the radioactivity would exceed acceptable risk levels for the entire population, they did not estimate total cancer cases. The acceptable lifetime cancer risk was chosen by Congress to be one chance in 100,000 lifetime. At this level, if we conservatively assume at most 10,000 people at risk in the Yucca Mountain area, much more than the present population, it would require ten lifetimes to accumulate 100,000 people — resulting in approximately one additional cancer case every 700 years. The natural background risk of radiation increases with altitude such that just two round trips by plane from the East to the West coast exceeds the risk level of protection used as a ceiling for nuclear waste risk.

ADVERTISEMENT

In public health, we routinely make siting decisions that lead to a slight increase in risk to a small number of us in order to protect a much larger percent of the population. Consider the siting of a clinic for drug addicts or a halfway house for the mentally ill. We rightly object when a single community bears the brunt of many such siting decisions, a signal of environmental injustice. We need to recognize and recompense those in the Yucca Mountain area for the risk that will eventually be borne by their descendants. But preventing predicted future droughts in an already arid region will also benefit them.

The nuclear power issue illustrates a common problem when political issues are based at least in part on scientific and technical understanding. Politicians who very adroitly respond to shifting economic or political factors tend to be cased in cement when the underlying science changes.

While a major issue, nuclear waste is not the sole concern about nuclear power sources. But since the earlier deliberations about Yucca Mountain we have had an additional two decades of a continued record of no loss of life or any loss of containment through accident or terrorism in the U.S. nuclear power industry. Costs also have been a significant issue, particularly affecting decisions about building new power plants. But these costs and the subsidies to extend the life of existing nuclear power plant must be considered in comparison to the costs of climate change that could be averted. They also should be compared to some of the Green New Deal programs which are far more costly and of less proven efficacy.

We will eventually stop using nuclear power, but we should not do so until we have replaced all of our major fossil fuel power sources with renewable energy. Instead, we are condemning our descendants to the inevitable destructive effects of the extent of global climate change partially preventable by nuclear power, and to ecosystem changes including irreversible loss of species. We should not use 20th-century science to make 21st-century decisions that will be particularly harmful to our 22nd-century descendants.

Bernard D. Goldstein, M.D., is a professor emeritus and dean emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health. He was chair of the EPA Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and the Environmental Protection Agency assistant administrator for research and development under President Reagan.