By Jerry B. Brown, Ph.D., Director, Safe Energy Project
I first learned about “the secret legacy of the Nuclear Age” from epidemiologist Jay Gould in the winter of 1997. With Ernest Sternglass, a radiation physicist, Dr. Gould founded the Radiation and Public Health Project (RPHP) to investigate the impact of cumulative doses of low-level radiation on human health, including their role in America’s cancer epidemic.
From 1998 to 2003, as executive director of RPHP, I participated in the second Baby Teeth Study in American history, testing children’s teeth for the presence of carcinogenic Strontinum-90 (Sr-90) – a manmade radioactive isotope only created by nuclear fission reactions in atomic bombs or nuclear power plants. The first Baby Teeth Study, carried out during the Cold War bomb test years, showed a strong correlation between increases in Sr-90 and the incidence of childhood cancer and leukemia. This inspired President John F. Kennedy to pass the historic 1963 Nuclear Test Ban Treaty banning all aboveground nuclear weapons testing, signed by the U.S. and the former U.S.S.R.
Unfortunately, due to the rapid commercialization of nuclear power plants in the 1970s, RPHP’s study found that Sr-90 in baby teeth began to rise again. It is now at levels equal to those at the height of the bomb test years – proving that the expansion of nuclear power has undermined all the health benefits of the 1963 Test Ban.
As director of the Academy’s Safe Energy project, I have coordinated two radiation-health studies on the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California. The first 2014 study by epidemiologist Joe Mangano showed that “since the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant opened in the mid-1980s, San Luis Obispo County has changed from a relatively low-cancer to a high-cancer county.” The second study, published in a peer-review medical journal by radiation chemist Chris Busby, found “a remarkable and statistically-significant 28% overall increase in infant mortality rates in the coastal strip group relative to the inland control group.” According to the study, a pattern of rising infant death rates (in the first year of birth) has occurred since Diablo Canyon opened in the mid-1980s.
The Academy submitted information on these studies to the State Lands Commission. In making its decision to grant Diablo Canyon a lease extension to continue operating until 2025, the Commission never reviewed – indeed, never mentioned these radiation-health studies! This is one of the main reasons that the Academy filed a lawsuit against the Commission and PG&E, the owner of this nuclear plant, with the goal of closing Diablo Canyon now: to prevent further illness and loss of life due to cancer and infant deaths.