Aug. 27, the day the Entergy Corp. announced it would permanently shut the Vermont Yankee nuclear reactor next year, marks one of the great public health advances in state history.
The reactor core will cease to be a fiery hot piece of radioactive metal that must be constantly cooled with water to avoid a disaster. Vermonters will no longer have to worry about being devastated by a core meltdown like those at Chernobyl in 1986 and Fukushima in 2011.
In addition, shutdown means no additional radioactivity routinely emitted into local air and water. For the first time since March 1972, no new radioactivity will be breathed by humans or consumed in the food chain.
Has exposure to Vermont Yankee releases harmed local health in the past 41 years? Statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest it has. Since startup, Windham County (the site of the reactor) has an infant death rate 14 percent higher and a child/young adult death rate 29 percent higher than the rest of the state. Radiation exposure harms all humans, but is especially toxic to fetuses, infants, and children. Windham County typifies Vermont in many ways. It is similar to the state in poverty rate, proportion of high school and college graduates, proportion of foreign-born and non-English speakers, and access to medical care. Many factors can raise death risk, but poisonous releases from a nuclear reactor must be considered. Health officials should investigate the puzzle of why so many young people in Windham have died.
Research findings indicate that the health of Windham’s youngest residents will now quickly improve. A 2002 article in Archives of Environmental Health found consistent, sharp plunges in local infant deaths and childhood cancers in the first two years after eight nuclear plants closed. Long-term benefits for young and old will also occur. A March 2013 article in Biomedicine International found large declines in Sacramento County (Calif.) cancer rates after the Rancho Seco nuclear reactor closed — an estimated 4,319 fewer cancer cases in the first 20 years after shutdown.
Even as local health improves, a closed Vermont Yankee still poses a health threat. The site contains over 100 million curies of highly radioactive waste (Chernobyl emitted 150 million curies). This deadly waste can never enter the environment for thousands of years — or a meltdown will be risked.
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