Cancer and the Nuclear Power Industry’s Radioactive Emissions

Like all commercial nuclear power plants operating in the United States, the Columbia Generating Station, located on the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in rural South-Central Washington, emits a small, but steady stream of radioactive pollution to the air. In the words of the plant’s radiological effluent reports, “Columbia Generating Station is a continuous release plant.” In recent years, these annual reports show that these pollution discharges have been rapidly increasing to the point that today, Columbia is one of the nation’s dirtiest nuclear power plants. But are they dangerous?

By Paul Koberstein

Background radiation is a natural part of our world. But Joseph Mangano, an epidemiologist and executive director of the Radiation and Health Project in New York says that the radiation released by nuclear plants is different than background radiation and can cause health problems, although his studies showing this are highly controversial, to say the least.

“Reactors create over 100 chemicals that don’t occur in nature, “ Mangano says. “Some, like Iodine-131, Strontium-90 and Plutonium-239, are especially toxic, and affect particular organs.” Iodine gathers in the thyroid; strontium, acting as though it were calcium, heads for the bones and teeth. Cancer in these organs can result. Columbia’s annual effluent reports say that the plant has emitted 25 different isotopes since 1998. See the chart below for a full list of isotopes released in the last 15 years by the Columbia plant.

Few doubt that there are health consequences of ingesting amounts of radiation that are highly elevated above background levels, but government agencies and the nuclear industry say that the radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants such as Columbia, fall into the “slightly elevated” category. The nuclear power industry and the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission say these levels of radiation pose no danger to health.

“Columbia Generating Station is a clean energy provider, emitting no harmful material to the environment,” said Columbia spokeswoman Angela Smith. “The station’s minute radioactive releases are not harmful to the environment, our employees or the public. “

But Mangano disagrees. His contends that the amount of radiation a person receives may not matter as much as the type of particle that emits it, as well as where in the body that particle comes to a rest.

In 2013, Mangano’s group, the Radiation and Health Project, released a study that assessed the health effects of living near the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant in Sacramento County, Calif, which closed in 1989. After it closed there were 4,319 fewer cancer cases over the next 20 years among residents of Sacramento County, in comparison with years when the plant was operating, Mangano said.

The study, “Long-term Local Cancer Reductions Following Nuclear Plant Shutdown,” was published in the peer-reviewed journal Biomedicine International, and was conducted by Magnano and Janelle Sherman, an adjunct professor at Western Michigan University. It said declines in Sacramento County cancer rates were observed for both males and females. The decline was four times greater in females than in males, so it was statistically significant only for females. Among the four types of cancer with a significantly decreased frequency were cancers of the female breast and thyroid.

Mangano said further research is warranted to determine if there is a cause-and effect relationship between the elimination of radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants and  significant long-term declines in human cancers.

A small population of about 1,000 lives near the Rancho Seco plant, which is located in a farming area about 25 miles from downtown Sacramento. In contrast, no one lives near the Columbia plant or even on the 586-square-mile Hanford site, which is in Benton County, Wash., and is closed to the general public. Benton County’s population of about 175,000 is much smaller than the 1.4 million in Sacramento County.

Although Rancho Seco in 1988, its last year of operation, had emissions of about 10 times greater than the Columbia plant did in 2010, it ran for only 14 years. Columbia has now been operating for more than twice as long, and counting.

Three small cities – known as the Tri-Cities of Richland, Kennewick and Pasco – are all within 20 miles of the Columbia plant. The largest and closest of these cities is Richland, population 50,000. More than 10,000 people live within 10 miles of the Columbia plant, and 445,416 people live within 50 miles, according to the US Census. The big cities of Seattle and Portland are about 150 miles away on the west side of the Cascade Mountains.

Elevated levels of ionizing radiation from nuclear fission have been a constant presence in the lives of people who grew up in the Tri-Cities – or at least more so than people from other places around the world. Some people from towns all the way east to Idaho, who call themselves “downwinders,” claim to have incurred health problems from living downwind from the Hanford bomb factory.

The Hanford Nuclear Reservation was in the dirty business of making nuclear bombs for 45 years, starting with the Manhattan Project in 1942. The Hanford site, owned by the US Department of Energy, leases land to the Columbia Generating Station, which is surrounded by barbed-wire fences near the site’s southern end. The plant is owned by Energy Northwest, a consortium of 28 public utility districts in the state.

Just beyond the plant’s outermost fence, vast quantities of highly toxic and radioactive waste seethe beneath Hanford’s sagebrush desert landscape. This waste is the deadly legacy of atomic bomb-making activities at Hanford, where the American War Department created the plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb that levelled Nagasaki, Japan, in 1945, and built much of this country’s nuclear stockpile.

Most of Hanford’s waste is stored in enormous, potentially explosive underground tanks that were filled over several decades with bomb manufacturing’s nasty refuse. Today, the Hanford site is one of the most polluted places on the planet. Waste from some of the tanks is leaking into the ground and is slowly seeping into the Columbia River.

The Columbia nuclear plant was just one of many nuclear reactors built over the years at the Hanford site, though unlike the others it never had a military mission and was never owned by the federal government. The old War Department, the predecessor of the Pentagon, built nine reactors at Hanford, the carcasses of which line a cliff alongside the Columbia River.

Most were given a name of just one letter in the alphabet. The “B” Reactor”  was the first large-scale nuclear plant ever built and had its first nuclear chain reaction in September 1944. The “N Reactor,” the longest-running Hanford reactor with 24 years of service, was the only reactor still operating when bomb-making ceased at Hanford. It was retired in 1987. A 10th reactor, the Fast Flux Test Facility, was used for testing advanced nuclear fuels until it was closed after just 10 years of service in 1992. The weathering bones of two unfinished nuclear reactors also rest at the site. These were built in the 1970s and 1980s by the Washington Public Power Supply System, which later renamed itself Energy Northwest, the owner of the Columbia Generating Station.

People in the Tri-Cities have been living with at least one and often several nuclear power plants operating nearby for longer than anyone else on Earth – a total of almost  69 consecutive years.

Originally, the Columbia Generating Station was known as Hanford 2 and later, Washington Nuclear Plant-2, but most people referred to it as the “Whoops plant” in reference to the sound of the Supply System’s acronym and its epic financial and construction failures.

Today, inside the Columbia plant, a sheen of pristine cleanliness glistens from the floors and walls, in contrast to the horrors lurking both outside the barbed-wire fences and in the airborne stream of radiation discharging from its stacks.

Most of the plant’s emissions exit through stacks in the reactor building after collecting in the condenser. These emissions grew by a factor of more than 123 from 1999-2010, doubling at the rate of once every 17 months. Columbia’s single reactor emitted more radioactivity than 29 twin reactors and three triple reactors in the US.


Figure 2. The annual release of radioactive gases from the Columbia Generating Station nuclear power plant have been on the rise over the last decade. Emissions fell in 2011 and 2012 but were still far higher than in 1999. Source: Columbia’s annual radiological effluent reports from 1999-2013.

In 2010, the plant discharged 186.3 curies of radiation to the air. One curie is equal to 37 billion radioactive atoms decaying (disintegrating) in one second. In countries that have adopted the International System of units, activity is reported in units of becquerels (Bq). One Bq is one atomic decay (or disintegration) per second. One curie equals 37,000,000,000 becquerels.

One curie of cobalt-60 and one curie of hydrogen-3 have the same activity; however, when an atom of cobalt-60 decays, the atomic transformations that occur typically produce one moderately energetic beta particle and two highly energetic gamma rays. By contrast, when an atom of hydrogen-3 decays, it emits only a single, low-energy beta particle.

The NRC says a long-standing, historical measure of a plant’s ability to control gaseous effluents is based on the amount of radiation in noble gases that are discharged. “Noble gases are sometimes used as a primary indicator of the overall control and handling of radioactive gaseous effluents at a site,” the agency says. The NRC says the average discharge of noble gases from boiling water reactors, such as Columbia, are far greater than for pressurized water reactors.

At Columbia, the increasing trend in noble gas releases has been primarily caused by an increase in the amount of a single gas, Argon-41, from the reactor building’s stack, said Victor Dricks, an NRC spokesman. Argon-41 is not a product of nuclear fission, but is created when a fission product strikes  a naturally occurring, non-radioactive form of Argon that is common in air. Argon makes up about 0.933 percent of total air volume. The increase in Argon-41 emissions in recent years may have been caused by a number of air leaks that were discovered from 2008 to 2010 at a condensate pump suction expansion joint and elsewhere at the plant, Dricks said.

Dricks says the NRC doesn’t worry much about Argon-41 because it disintegrates quickly. Its half-life is just 1.83 hours, compared to the 9.12-year half-life of another chemical often released in the plant’s waste, strontium-90. As Argon-41 decays it releases several beta particles and becomes an isotope of potassium (K-41). Gamma radiation is also released by this transition.

Although the Argon-41 decays in a short period of time, another radioactive Argon particle is not far behind.

In 2011, when the Columbia plant replaced the leaky tubes in its condenser (see Part 2), its discharges of noble gases declined by about 60 percent, although they were still almost 50 times larger than the levels seen in 1999.

The plant’s effluent reports list the annual amount of gamma and beta radiation doses that a hypothetical person at the site boundary would receive from these emissions. Dose is a measure of how much radiation energy is absorbed by organs or tissues of the body. Gamma radiation is by far the most damaging form of radiation to human tissue. These reports show that the gamma and beta doses delivered by the Columbia plant to the hypothetical human have also increased substantially since 1999. The annual effluent reports attribute most of the gamma and beta radiation that reach the plant’s site boundaries to the disintegration of Argon-41. After it decays it becomes a stable potassium isotope (K-41.)

Despite the huge increases in radioactive emissions and dosages at the Columbia plant, the NRC web site assures the public that “over the past 25 years, radioactive effluents released from nuclear power plants have decreased significantly.”


Figure 3. A computer model calculated these annual gamma ray dosages received by the hypothetically most exposed member of the public who would have been at the site boundary 4.95 miles ENE of the plant. The dosages were far less than the federal limit for such a person. These gamma dosages are based on radioactive gas releases as well as a number of variables including location, meteorological data, and characteristics of the emitted radionuclides. Source: Columbia’s annual radiological effluent reports from 19999-2013.

Moreover, as Dricks points out, Columbia’s dosages are still far below federal standards, despite the increase in the gamma and beta dosages over the last decade. “Columbia remains in compliance with NRC dose limits,” he said.

But if CGS’ radioactive emissions continue to increase at the exponential rate observed during the last decade, the plant will fail to comply with federal radiation safety limits around 2030, according to the regression analysis included in Part 7 of this report.

Noble gases such as argon-41, xenon-135 and krypton-85 comprise the lion’s share of emissions at most plants. Tritium, a hydrogen atom with an extra electron, is the next most common isotope in the nuclear power plant’s radioactive effluent. Tritium combines with oxygen to become a radioactive form of water. When in the body, it can damage cells, cause genetic mutations and trigger the growth of cancer cells until it is flushed out. Tiny amounts of particulates such as cobalt-60, strontium-90 and chromium-51 are also part of the mix. Particulates can be especially dangerous when they can lodge in a person’s lungs, in other organs or enter the food supply. Finally, Iodine, which is usually a nonmetallic, purplish-black crystalline solid, is usually released from nuclear power plants as a gas. Iodine collects in the thyroid where it can cause thyroid cancer.


Figure 4. A computer model calculated these annual beta particle dosages received by the hypothetically most exposed member of the public at the site boundary 4.95 miles ENE of the plant. The dosages were far less than the federal limit for such a person. These beta dosages are based on fission gas releases as well as a number of variables including location, meteorological data and characteristics of the emitted radionuclides.

The Columbia Generating Station’s effluent has been consisted of five radioactive types of noble gases, two radioactive iodine isotopes and 17 radioactive forms of particulates, plus tritium.

The nation’s high-emission plants appear to flaunt NRC regulations that require plants to keep their radioactive emissions “as low as reasonably achievable” which means they must make “every reasonable effort to maintain exposures to ionizing radiation as far below dose limits as practical.” (The rule is often referred to by its acronym, ALARA). Other plants prove that it is possible to achieve low emissions. A list of these-low emission plants is presented in Part 6.


Figure 5. This graph shows a rolling three-year average of total workforce dosages at the Columbia Generating Station during years of refueling outages from 2001-2011. Workers are exposed to much higher amounts of radiation when the reactor is not operating. A person-rem is a measure of the dosage received by the plant’s entire workforce for the year.

A second way to violate ALARA standards is to expose workers to an excessive dose. The NRC accused Energy Northwest of exposing some of its contract workers to unexpectedly high dosages during work in 2011 to replace the plant’s leaky condenser.

During the first decade of the 21st Century, when Columbia’s emissions were skyrocketing,  the plant was operating much of the time in violation of federal effluent monitoring regulations.

Federal regulations require all nuclear power plants in the United States to accurately and continuously monitor the radioactive pollution that passes from its nuclear reactor to the outside environment.  However, after 2000 several radiation monitors at the plant were in a constant state of miscalibration, in constant need of repair, or both. As a result, the value of whatever information the monitors gathered during that time was of dubious value.

But that doesn’t mean that the annual effluent reports were inaccurate during those years. Columbia does not use data collected by its air pollution monitors to compile the effluent reports. Instead, the information in these reports is developed by plant technicians who measure radioactive emissions by collecting air samples in beakers and analyzing them using gamma spectroscopy.

The purpose of the radiation monitors is to warn the members of the public whenever unusually high levels of radiation are released such as during a major accident, meltdown or explosion at the plant.

Paul Koberstein