The Indian Point nuclear power plant is located just 35 miles from midtown Manhattan. About 18 million people live within 50 miles of the site. The two reactors at the site are over 40 years old – ancient in nuclear years. Recently Indian Point has been plagued by increasing problems; nearly 25% of the bolts in the reactor vessel were found to be damaged or missing and 65,000% spike in tritium levels one of its test wells. These mechanical problems raise the concern of a catastrophic meltdown. Any large release from the red-hot cores or pools of nuclear waste were to occur from human error, mechanical failure, or act of sabotage, would exceed Chernobyl or Fukushima in fatalities.
But it doesn’t take a meltdown for a nuclear power plant to harm people who live nearby. Every day, a portion of the nuclear waste produced to make electricity are emitted from the plant into the air and water. It enters human bodies through breathing and the food chain. This waste, which consists of over 100 radioactive chemicals exactly the same as those when atomic bombs explode, all cause cancer, birth defects, and other diseases. Because producing uranium used in nuclear plants involves multiple steps that produce greenhouse gases, nuclear power is not just radioactive, it is also not carbon free.
For decades, scientists studying radiation from atomic bombs and nuclear power have focused on thyroid disease. This butterfly-shaped thyroid gland is especially susceptible to damage from radiation due to the presence of iodine, one of the 100-plus chemicals in bombs and reactors. When it enters the body, iodine particles quickly attach to the thyroid gland, and begin to kill and damage cells, leading to a higher risk of cancer and other diseases. No other root cause of thyroid cancer is known.
There is a long list of studies that show people who are exposed to radiation are more likely to develop thyroid cancer. These studies include atomic bomb survivors from Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Marshall Island residents who were exposed to bomb test fallout; Americans who were exposed to similar fallout; and persons living near Chernobyl and Fukushima during meltdowns.
No atomic bombs were detonated near Indian Point, nor has the plant ever experienced a meltdown. But government statistics show that since it began operating, Indian Point has released the 5th highest amount of radioactive iodine into the air from routine operations. The total amount exceeded the releases officially reported from the 1979 partial meltdown at the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania.
There are four counties that flank Indian Point, and nearly all residents live within 20 miles of the plant. In the late 1970s, just after the two reactors began operating, the local thyroid cancer rate was 24% below the U.S. rate. But the local rate skyrocketed since then, and now is 50% greater than the U.S. In the late 1970s, about 50 local residents per year were diagnosed with the disease; now, the number has soared to 500.
In addition to thyroid cancer, another disease that is susceptible to iodine’s toxic properties is hypothyroidism, or underactive thyroid gland. Tens of millions of Americans, mostly middle age women, have this disease, and the numbers are rising. But hypothyroidism can start at any age – even at birth; in fact, all U.S. newborns are screened for the disease. In the past decade, 208 babies born in the four counties near Indian Point were diagnosed with hypothyroidism – a rate 92% greater (nearly double) than the U.S.
These statistics raise red flags about Indian Point’s health threat to the area north of New York City. The issue of whether the government should allow the plant to operate for another 20 years has been hotly disputed for nearly a decade. The epidemic of local thyroid disease – with no other known explanation other than radiation exposure – should be made known to local residents and public officials, to fully inform them of the risks of this decision. The New York State Department of State found that the power generated from Indian Point has already been replaced. With other, safer forms of energy such as wind, solar, and tidal power growing rapidly, it may be time to retire this aging, corroding, and leaking plant. The human cost may not be worth it.