Citizens can monitor radiation around plant

Recent findings have moved state and federal regulators to publicly discuss problems at the Millstone Power Station nuclear plants in Waterford. Topics have ranged from defective parts in reactors to rising water temperatures in the Long Island Sound, where the plant draws and releases heated water.

Regardless of the issue, all Millstone discussions are to protect public health and safety, a government duty mandated by law. But oversight by government only may not be enough. For example, "refueling" - replacing used uranium fuel with new fuel - recently occurred at Millstone reactor 3. During refueling, which takes several weeks, the reactor shuts and many maintenance tasks are performed - some of them involving releases of radiation.

As these tasks are going on, Millstone workers temporarily took radiation monitors out of service for maintenance. So, any radiation leaks into the environment would occur when less monitoring is in place.

How much radiation is released from Millstone is a very elusive concept. Most official releases are difficult to find on the Internet and even more difficult to understand. In addition, government does nothing more than declare whether releases are within legal limits.

Insufficient government oversight of Millstone's radiation releases carries a message that greater involvement is needed from local residents.

Citizens aren't scientists, but they still can play a key role in radiation monitoring. For decades, hand-sized, easy-to-use devices have been available to count levels of radiation in the air. After the Three Mile Island meltdown in Pennsylvania in 1979, devices were placed in nearby public locations, so people could be warned more quickly in case of another meltdown.

But after the disastrous meltdown in Fukushima, Japan three years ago, many more citizens have purchased and used counters - not for meltdowns, but for routine releases from reactors.

Millstone generates more than 100 chemicals not found anywhere on Earth - except when atomic bombs explode and nuclear reactors operate. Each chemical, in particle or gas form, is radioactive. They are mostly stored in reactors as waste, but some escape and can enter human bodies through breathing and the food chain.

Once in the body, radioactive chemicals kill cells or damage the DNA in healthy cells. If enough harm is caused, cancer, birth defects, or other disorders can result. Fetuses, infants, and the elderly are especially vulnerable to radiation damage.

Radiation from Millstone's reactors, in operation since 1970, may have harmed local residents. Since it began, Millstone has released the third highest amount of radiation of any U.S. nuclear plant.

From 1973 to 2007, cancer incidence in New London County was higher than any other Connecticut county. In that period, 44,000 New London residents were diagnosed with the disease. The New London rate is still highest in the most current period for all ages combined - the young, and the elderly. Each year, another 1,600 county residents receive a diagnosis of cancer.

Citizens have historically played a significant role in scientific achievements. During the nuclear era, studies involved thousands of parents who donated their child's discarded baby teeth so chemists could measure levels of Strontium-90, one of the 100-plus chemicals found only in nuclear weapons tests and reactor emissions.

With the Millstone plant ever aging, now is the time for citizen action. Acquiring one of these easy-to-use counters and measuring radiation levels in the air - simply by turning a button to "on" - will empower the community to better understand the extent of pollution caused by the plant. Citizens can then use this knowledge to demand greater accountability from Millstone owners, to help lower releases and lower disease rates.

Joseph Mangano is executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project (www.radiation.org).

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