Nuclear Battle in Georgia

Undeterred by the nuclear power industry’s latest radiological catastrophe in Japan, the Obama administration is moving to put the stamp of approval on a far-reaching nuclear expansion project that has raised charges of environmental injustice from regional watchdog groups who have been fighting the project for over six years.


Once deemed the “poster child” of a U.S. nuclear revival by the Nuclear Energy Institute (NEI), the Washington-based propaganda wing of the nuclear establishment, the project would put two more nuclear reactors on a site in Burke County, Georgia in a black farming community where cancer mortality and infant mortality rates increased sharply after two existing reactors on the site went online in the late 1980s.


The project—put forward by the Southern Company, a U.S. utility headquartered in Atlanta for its Plant Vogtle nuclear station—is the furthest along the track for approval of 14 reactors proposed for 7 sites (2 per site) throughout the southeast. All projects are based on a new reactor model known as the AP1000 sold by Westinghouse-Toshiba. The AP1000 is on the fast track for final certification, but remains the target of challenges over safety design flaws identified by nuclear engineers in and outside of the industry. Despite the unresolved issues, the NRC is expected to certify the reactor before the end of the year, allowing construction to begin.


The increase in cancer and mortality data is shown in a report commissioned by the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League (BREDL) based in Glendale Spring, North Carolina and a lead member in the regional coalition opposing the Plant Vogtle expansion. 


The  Report

The report, “Health Risks of Adding New Reactors to the Alvin Vogtle Nuclear Plant,” showed changes in health status before and after the startup of the two reactors. It was based on data for annual deaths between 1979-2003 maintained by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and found: “The cancer death rate for children and adolescents in the 11 counties closest to Vogtle rose 58.5 percent, compared to a 14.1 percent decline nationally. The death rate in Burke County rose sharply for all cancers, especially for blacks and for children and young/ middle age adults, while U.S. rates declined. In the late 1980s, Burke County cancer mortality rates were below the U.S., but became considerably higher.”


In studies of radiation health risk, “childhood cancer is perhaps the most-studied disease, due to the increased risk from radiation exposures to the fetus, infant, and child,” the report stated. The report included data on environmental contamination based on annual reports submitted by the utility to the NRC. Data on selected water samples and sediment showed that, “From 1987-1990 (as Vogtle began operating) to 1991-2003 (during full operation), average radioactivity levels in drinking water, river water, and sediment downriver or at the Vogtle plant rose:


  • Beta in Raw Drinking Water + 37.1 percent  
  • Beta in Finished Drinking Water + 17.8 percent, 
    Beryllium-7 in Sediment + 39.5 percent
  • Cesium-137 in Sediment + 37.4 percent 
  • Tritium in River Water + 44.6 percent

“The report found that increases in average levels of radioactivity in the local soil, sediment, and water are roughly equivalent to the increase in cancer deaths in Burke County,” Mangano said in a recent interview…. This should be a big red flag for the continued operations of Vogtle 1 and 2, and for the potential startup of Vogtle 3 and 4.”


Mangnao noted that the report “underlines not just the increases in local contamination and cancer rates but also represents a lack of public accountability by the public utilities and government regulators to the public. What’s in this report should be presented by the government and the utilities to the public on an ongoing basis.”


A news feature aired on CNN last year (“Town fights new nuclear plants,” 4/16/10) cited Mangano’s report in a story about the plight of residents in Shell Bluff who have asked for—but failed to get—environmental testing done to determine the cause of their high cancer rates. The story noted that a radiological monitoring program under Georgia’s Environmental Protection Division and funded by the U.S. Department of Energy was terminated in 2004.


Until DOE cut the funds, Georgia’s EPD published reports on testing results on water, fish, and other samples near state facilities that emitted ionizing radiation, comparing the data to background levels. Test results for Vogtle from 1995 to 2002 showed that it was the source of 2 to 50 times the elevation of radionuclides contaminating sediment, river water, fish, and drinking water.


“The funding for the program was cut off around the same time we heard about the so-called nuclear renaissance and we smelled a rat,” said Bobbie Paul, executive director of Georgia WAND (Women’s Action for New Directions), which works on health and social justice issues. “We believed Southern Company didn’t want any kind of sampling or testing that would disturb this major financial investment that was going to double the size of Vogtle.”


The CNN story said that DOE had been contacted and stated in response that funding would be restored, but to date that has not happened. “We look at Vogtle first through the lens of the environmental justice issue,” said Paul. “The people who live in Shell Bluff are predominately African American, they’re poor people who farm the land. They have very few services and they live directly downwind and downstream from both Plant Vogtle and the Savannah River Site, the old bomb plant. And they have cancers—pancreatic, stomach, liver, brain, colon cancers.”



The Savannah River Site (SRS), which produced plutonium and tritium and other weapons materials from five nuclear reactors, is now the site of the DOE’s tritium extraction operation producing tritium for the U.S. nuclear stockpile. An estimated 37,000,000 gallons of high-level liquid radioactive waste from weapons production are stored on the site in 49 underground tanks (many leaking, and eight or more near or below the water table, according to a 2010 GAO report). “Tritium levels have been read on the site at over 220,000 picocuries per liter when the accepted level is 20,000, and we’re trying to get it reduced to four or five hundred as a public health goal,” Paul said.


“What I see happening in Burke County is another injustice heaped upon a community which has already had major injustices heaped upon it in the past,” said BREDL’s science director, Lou Zeller. BREDL submitted a further report citing radiological pollution from Plant Vogtle to the NRC last year and charged the agency had failed to consider “the full impact” of two additional nuclear plants on the site. They “would double the danger of radiation exposure, double the risk of nuclear accidents, and double the impact on future generations.”


The report, based on utility data, said that the existing reactors discharge 10,000 gallons of liquid waste per minute into the Savannah River. “This includes over 1,400 curies/year of nuclear fission products and tritium and two new proposed reactors would increase this radioactive pollution by an additional 2,020 curies per year.”


The report further noted that local residents depend on the Savannah River for fish for food. Testing has shown that river fish are contaminated with cesium-137. Tests in the vicinity of the Vogtle plant have routinely found cesium-137 in the edible parts of fish. Exposure to cesium-137 is linked to increased risk of cancer. “Radioactive cesium-137 is of particular concern because levels actually increase when fish is cooked,” the report said. One study found that cesium levels increase by 32 percent when fish are fried with breading and by 62 percent when fried without breading.


Zeller said the addition of two more reactors at Plant Vogtle would “double the danger of radiation exposure, double the risk of nuclear accidents, and double the impact on future generations…. The NRC seems to be immune to arguments about environmental justice. We’ve raised arguments on issues of environmental justice going back to 2006 and they were never even considered by the NRC. They were dismissed out of hand.”


In early August, 25 environmental groups across the country filed separate legal challenges with the NRC over pending actions involving 19 reactor facilities including Plant Vogtle. The motions were filed following the NRC’s recent report containing recommended actions based on “lessons learned” from the Fukushima disaster.


The report calls for regulatory changes in reactor licensing. In their challenges, the groups stated that under federal laws, “the NRC may not issue or renew a single reactor license until it has either strengthened regulations to protect the public from severe accident risks or until it has made a careful and detailed study of the environmental implications of not doing so, the groups said in a statement.”


John Raymond is a freelance writer based in New York City.