Return of Three Mile Island?

Exelon plans to build a new nuclear power plant. Ho-hum.

Perhaps the most memorable scene of the 1979 classic The China Syndrome is when the A-team of scientists at the fictitious nuclear power plant is facing a meltdown. Lights are flashing on the control panel, buzzers are blaring, and a middle-age Jack Lemmon, who plays the conscientious plant manager, is feverishly trying to find out what's happening. Then suddenly, there is silence, and the camera focuses on a cup of coffee, which seems to suck in an invisible force that causes waves to emanate in perfect concentric circles from the middle of the coffee to the edges of the cup.

The China Syndrome was the beginning of a long-lasting nightmare Americans had about radiation. It was the enemy you couldn't see infecting the most basic necessities of life, like your morning coffee. Through it came a new villain: the nuclear power industry. Three weeks after The China Syndrome came out in 1979, Three Mile Island near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania really had a meltdown. And a few years later in 1986, Chernobyl had an explosion. Nuclear energy's days seemed numbered.

But nuclear power is back on the agenda. The country's largest nuclear energy company, Exelon, is discussing plans to build the first nuclear power plant since the Three Mile Island disaster. What's more, people now seem relatively blasé about possible negative effects of radiation from nuclear power plants, even when it's in their own back yard.

Take the "Tooth Fairy Project," a study partially funded by the Health Foundation of South Florida, which measures for the radioactive isotope strontium 90 in samples of (first-growth) baby teeth that parents voluntarily donate. The study garnered some press when it released its preliminary South Florida findings in 2001. But the Tooth Fairy got little coverage this past month when it disseminated its final report, which included startling findings relating to the nuclear facilities at Turkey Point near Homestead and at St. Lucie, between Vero Beach and Hobe Sound.

In the twenty years since The China Syndrome, we've gone from hysteria to apathy. Worse yet, neither extreme seems to get us any closer to the truth about the possible harmful effects of nuclear power, since both sides seem more keen on discrediting the other than helping the public understand the risks.

Like that cup of coffee in The China Syndrome, we all absorb what's benignly termed "background radiation." It comes from a variety of sources ranging from X-rays to the residue left over from the worldwide aboveground testing of nuclear bombs, which ended in 1980. It also comes from nuclear power plants that dispose of radioactive waste in manmade water beds called "cooling canals," discharging it into the air after it's "filtered." Locally, Florida Power & Light (FP&L), which owns the nuclear power plants in Turkey Point and St. Lucie, monitors emissions at both facilities, while the Florida Department of Health tests samples of the soil, water, air, plants, and fish to make sure we don't get too much "background radiation." Both say the plants are well under regulation standards. The Tooth Fairy Project says they're wrong.

The roots of this project go back to the 1950s and '60s, when scientists in St. Louis checked 325,000 baby teeth to see the effects of testing nuclear bombs in Nevada. The results showed a 50-fold increase in the amount of strontium 90 in children's teeth there. A Tooth Fairy pioneer, radiation physicist Ernest Sternglass, testified before Congress at the request of President Kennedy, and aboveground testing was outlawed in the U.S. in 1963. "The loss of even one human life, or the malformation of even one baby," Kennedy said at the time, "should be of concern to us all."

The original St. Louis baby teeth study ended in 1970, but studies related to radiation and cancer continued. In his 1996 book The Enemy Within, epidemiologist Jay Gould claims that women living within 100 miles of a nuclear reactor run a much greater risk of dying of breast cancer than other women. A separate study by public health advocate Joseph Mangano stated that the risk of cancer for infants living near nuclear plants was eleven percent higher than the national average.

Sternglass, Gould, and Mangano all worked on the current Tooth Fairy Project, which is based in New York City. Between 1996 and 2002, the project collected 2089 teeth nationwide, 461 of those in South Florida. The results, the report said, showed levels of radiation in the South Florida atmosphere comparable to Three Mile Island after its disaster in 1979. It also declared a correlation between proximity to nuclear power plants in South Florida and high levels of strontium 90 in children's teeth, comparable to the nuclear testing days in the 1960s. Strontium 90, the report added, is a "known" carcinogen and is a "significant factor" in the 35.2 percent rise in the cancer rate of children under ten in southeast Florida since 1983.

When the initial findings came out in 2001, the press zealously covered it. The Miami Heraldran a story calling for people to send in baby teeth to the project. The Sun-Sentineldeclared in a headline that "Study Finds Radiation in Baby Teeth." The Associated Press wrote a story, and the BBC did a ten-minute feature on its nightly news on a Tooth Fairy study in Britain, mentioning the U.S. study.

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