Return of Three Mile Island?

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


In The China Syndrome, the nuclear power plant hires some goons to drive up behind the plant's critics and run them off the side of a cliff to their deaths. These days the "accidents" are a little more subtle. Shortly after the Tooth Fairy issued its preliminary findings in 2001, FP&L produced a pamphlet in which it said that the American Cancer Society, the National Cancer Institute, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, and the Health Physics Society refuted the project's findings. "We felt a need to respond because they were scaring people," said Rachel Scott, the "nuclear communications manager" at FP&L.

So did the Florida Department of Health, which produced a report denying the Tooth Fairy had any validity at all. "Using this data to reconstruct calculations and graphing our findings, we have not been able to identify unusually high rates of cancers in these [five South Florida] counties," the report stated. "As we would expect, just by chance, some county rates appear higher than state and national trends, and some appear lower." Significantly, the Department of Health report came out the same day as a public hearing regarding the renewal of the Turkey Point nuclear power plant license. "The timing was interesting," FP&L's Scott said. "We were very fortunate that we had it for the meeting."

In the weeks leading up to the Turkey Point hearing, FP&L officials also made themselves available to the press and compiled a list of scientists who reporters could contact. One of these was nuclear engineer Dade Moeller, who is also a professor emeritus of environmental health from Harvard. On the day of the Turkey Point hearing, Moeller told the Herald that the Tooth Fairy didn't exist. "It's one of the worst examples of junk science I have ever seen," he said of the study. The Herald headlined its story, "Turkey Point Is No Threat."

The pendulum had swung back again. When the Tooth Fairy presented its final report last month, the Herald wrote a blurb in its Dade County edition. The Sun-Sentinel and Associated Press didn't write stories at all. And there was scant local television coverage. FP&L's Scott called the reporting "balanced." The Tooth Fairy felt slighted. "There's a campaign to discredit us," said Jerry Brown, an anthropologist who is one of the project's researchers.

Another confusing tit-for-tat has followed. Brown calls into question the scientist Moeller's independence, noting that he worked with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and as "an industry consultant." Critics of the study say that Tooth Fairy Project scientist Ernest Sternglass has made outrageous claims linking radiation to lower SAT scores. Both sides also say the other has an agenda. FP&L's Scott said Tooth Fairy is simply antinuclear. Brown denies this. "We're not antinuclear," Brown said. "We don't get funding from the solar industry." And of course, both deny it's about money. But the power plants provide 25 percent of the total electricity that FP&L produces and are the company's most fuel-efficient utilities; the Tooth Fairy Project sparked a family to independently test their cancer-ridden son's teeth, which has led to a lawsuit against FP&L.

With all this bickering it's nearly impossible to sort out the real risks involved in living near nuclear facilities. Both sides talk in "picocuries," which are a measurement of radiation emitted, and "millirems," which are a measurement for radiation exposure. There are anthropologists, nuclear physicists, nuclear engineers, and health advocates throwing facts and figures at us. There are disputes over dates and data -- what one side says constitutes statistical proof, the other side says is statistical coincidence.

So who's right? You might as well ask the tooth fairy.

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