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.

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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