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Nuclear Contamination In Connecticut
Dangerous practices at the Millstone nuclear power plants

By Michael Steinberg

 

The end of 1997 brought a flurry of media reports in Connecticut about radioactive contamination from the state’s notorious nuclear power plants. The Connecticut Yankee nuclear plant, located about 20 miles up the Connecticut River from Long Island Sound, has been the focus of much of the attention. But the Millstone nuclear plants, located just west of New London on the Sound, have had reports of similar problems as well.

The Connecticut Yankee plant was permanently shut down at the end of 1996 after 29 years of operation. All three Millstone plants were shut down by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) after years of consistently dangerous practices. They are currently rated as worst in the nation by the NRC, and cannot be restarted without approval by the agency’s commissioners. All four plants are owned and operated by Northeast Utilities (NU), New England’s largest electrical utility. The Millstone plants comprise New England’s largest electrical generating station. Because of problems at these plants, NU is struggling for its life. Repairs at Millstone and the cost of buying replacement power cost the company over $1 billion, and forced it to post a $51.7 million loss for the third quarter of 1997.

In the fall of 1996 two workers at the shut down Connecticut Yankee plant entered an area that NU had declared decontaminated of radioactivity. Because the company was confident the area wasn’t hot, it didn’t bother to test it for radioactivity before sending the two people in. But when the two emerged they set off radiation alarms and were found to be severely contaminated. This incident forced the NRC to investigate and eventually slap NU with a hefty fine. But the story just kept getting hotter.

Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal hired nuclear expert John Joosten in April 1997 to investigate Connecticut Yankee’s radiological track record. Blumenthal didn’t want rate payers or the state to get stuck with decommissioning costs for the plant that were due to NU mismanagement.

Joosten’s findings were a bombshell. He revealed that in 1979, and again in 1989, NU had operated the Connecticut Yankee plant with badly damaged nuclear fuel rods. Joosten contended that the large amounts of radiation released through the cracked rods had spread contamination through the plant and beyond. Joosten also found that other unsafe practices at the plant had caused contamination of the site’s soil, parking lots, wetlands, roof septic system, silt in its discharge canal, water wells, and a shooting range three-quarters of a mile away. NU documents also reported the movement of radiologically untested materials around and off the plant site.

In a September 16, 1997 press release, Attorney General Blumenthal declared, “What we have is a nuclear management nightmare of Northeast Utilities’ own making. The goal is no longer to decommission a nuclear power plant, but rather to decontaminate a nuclear waste dump.”

The previous July NU had declared a landfill on the edge of the plant site a radioactive zone. Levels of two radioactive substances, Cobalt 60 and Cesium 137, were found to be three and six times, respectively, above federal limits. The wooded area was then fenced off and radiation warning signs were posted. But for years it had been access­ible to the public. NU was unable to explain how the hot stuff got there.

Cobalt 60 remains dangerously radioactive for over 50 years, Cesium 137 for 300. October brought revelations of more Cobalt 60 found in contaminated soil transported from the plant—this time in 1989 to the playground of a day care center operated by the spouse of a plant employee. Governor John Rowland promised that children enrolled at the day care center at that time would be tested for radiation. But over a month later none of the families had even been contacted.

It emerged that during the 1980s and into the 1990s NU had been giving away soil, asphalt, and concrete blocks from the Connecticut Yankee site to local residents. Federal law required NU to test these materials for contamination before they left the plant site. But NU was not able to document that it had done so.

At the end of October Connecticut residents learned that since 1972 NU had banned Connecticut Yankee workers from drinking site well water contaminated with tritium—radioactive hydrogen. NU said it had stopped allowing consumption of water from the wells because a skunk had fallen into one of them.

A November 4 Hartford Courant story reported that tritium levels in the wells exceeded federal limits for drinking water on several occasions in 1975—and that during that same year the NRC allowed it to stop report­ing tritium levels in the wells.

The federal limit for tritium in drinking water is 20,000 curies per liter. Prominent nuclear expert John Gofman has stated that before the Nuclear Age, the natural occurrence of tritium in fresh water was 6 to 24 picocuries per liter.

The Connecticut Yankee plant released far more tritium into the envi­ronment during its 29-year run than any other commercial U.S. nuclear plant. The tritium was discharged into the Connecticut River. Since that river is a tidal stream, the tritium flowed not only south into Long Island Sound and its popular wetlands and shoreline, but also north to Hartford and beyond.

As the year’s end approached, NU and state and federal officials were scurrying around testing soil, water, and building materials taken from the plant to nearby homes. They were seeking 5,000 concrete blocks included on this hot list. The blocks had formed a barrier around a radwaste cask before it was sent for disposal in the late 1970s. They were then made available to workers at about that same time.

Some 320 contaminated blocks were found at 2 homes. Of these, 20 contained radioactivity “above the natural occurrence in the environment,” according to a state official. Also          over the fall, Connecticut media reported that soil from the Millstone Nuclear Power Station had been taken to baseball, soccer, and football athletic fields for children directly adjacent to the plant.

At an October meeting in Waterford (the town where Millstone is located) an NU official, in response to my questions, revealed that the soil had neither been decontaminated nor tested before it left the plant site. The official stated that NU’s recent testing of the soil found nothing above natural levels of radiation. But the town of Waterford hired an independent consultant to do further tests.

I asked the official when the soil had been removed from Mill­stone to the fields. He told me it was “a 1976 time frame.” We’ll soon learn the radiological significance of that time frame.

On November 18, 1997, Connecticut Attorney General Blumenthal filed a $1 million lawsuit against NU, alleging that it “thumbed its corporate nose at Connecticut’s environmental laws.” The suit contended that Mill­stone dumped amounts of hazardous chemicals exceeding state and federal limits into Long Island Sound hundreds of times between 1992 and 1996.

The state’s lawsuit was largely fueled by information from another suit, filed by former Millstone employee James Plumb. In his 1996 action Plumb alleged that he was fired after repeatedly raising safety concerns at Millstone 3. The federal government is also investigating Plumb’s charges.

The Untold Story

State and federal officials, as well as the media, have studiously and repeatedly asserted that all these contaminated sites and materials pose no threat to the public. But other sources have indicated that Connecticut’s nuclear contami­nation has been far worse than recently reported, and that its health effects have been devastating.

In October 1977, Dr. Ernest Sternglass, professor of radiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical School, showed that from 1970 to 1975 cancer deaths increased 58 percent in Waterford, 44 percent in New London, 12 percent in Connecticut, and 8 percent in Rhode Island. By contrast, cancer mortality increased 6 percent for the U.S. as a whole, 7 percent in Massachusetts, and 1 percent for New Hampshire when comparing those same years.

Sternglass attributed the Connecticut and downwind increases to radio­active releases from the Millstone 1 nuclear plant, which began commercial operation in late 1970. In late 1974 the plant began releasing much higher levels of radiation. Its 1975 airborne radioactive emissions totaled nearly three million curies—the highest such amount reported in a single year by a U.S. commercial nuclear plant except for Three Mile Island in 1979.

During 1975 Millstone 1 also released nearly 10 curies of Iodine 131 into the air. Sternglass pointed out in his 1981 book Secret Fallout that “a single curie of Iodine 131 could make 10 billion quarts of milk unfit for continuous consumption, according to existing guidelines adopted by the federal government.”

Millstone l’s high releases in 1975 were largely due to its operation with “leakers”—defective fuel rods. As at Connecticut Yankee in 1979 and 1989, this allowed massive contamination. Ironically, Sternglass’s 1977 report was done for then Congressperson and now Senator Christopher Dodd, whose home is near the Connecticut Yankee plant.

Millstone l’s radioactive releases remained high into the late 1970s. In its egregious twenty-five year operating career, it has discharged nearly six and one-half million curies of radiation into the environment, again second only to Three Mile Island.

After Sternglass’s 1977 report the Connecticut Department of Health Services stopped publishing annual reports from the Connecticut Tumor Registry. These statistics had been published each year since the 1930s. The last published figures showed that from 1970 to 1977, cancer deaths in the state increased 62 percent in Waterford, 45 percent in New London, and 16 percent in the state as a whole.

In 1979 Sternglass produced another report that linked infant mortal­ity problems in Rhode Island to Millstone and Connecticut Yankee radio­active emissions. Sternglass indicated that from 1965 to 1970 Rhode Island and New Hampshire had the same infant mortality rates, reflecting the national trend of decline. But after the Connecticut nuclear plants started up, Rhode Island’s decrease lessened, while New Hampshire’s continued to decline.

In 1990 Jay Gould and Benjamin Goldman published Deadly Deceit, in­spired in great part by Sternglass’s work. One chapter, “Cancer In Conn­ecticut,” again indicated sharply elevated cancer mortality attribued to Millstone and Connecticut Yankee radioactive releases. The authors reported that cancer deaths in Middlesex county (site of Connecticut Yankee), New London county (site of Millstone), and Kent and Washington counties down­wind in southwestern Rhode Island “rose 30 percent from 1965-69 to 1975-82, compared to Connecticut’s rise of 24 percent, and a U.S. rise of 16 percent.”

Gould’s 1996 follow up to Deadly Deceit, The Enemy Within, showed that age-adjusted breast cancer deaths in Middlesex and New London counties rose far above national rates subsequent to the startup of Connecticut’s nuclear plants. Comparing the periods 1950-1954 to 1980-1984, Gould showed a 14 percent increase, while the national rate rose 2 percent. And comparing 1950-1954 to 1985-1989 yielded a 19 percent increase in the two counties, with the national increase 1 percent.

Also in 1996, Joseph Mangano, an associate of Sternglass and Gould in the New York City-based Radiation and Public Health Project, published a study of thyroid cancer in Connecticut in the European Journal of Cancer Prevention. Using information obtained from the Connecticut Tumor Registry, Man­gano showed that from 1971-1975 there were 20 reported cases of thyroid cancer in New London county. But from 1976-1980 (beginning 5 years after Millstone 1’s startup), there were 38 cases reported—an astounding 86.8 percent increase in this very rare disease. The rate of increase for these periods for this disease in the rest of Connecticut was 12.2 percent

Comparing similar 5-year periods for Connecticut Yankee, Mangano reported a 54.7 percent increase in thyroid cancer incidence in the latter period, compared to 18.2 percent elsewhere in the state.

Mangano attributed these sharp increases in Middlesex and New London counties to Iodine 131 emissions from Millstone and Connecticut Yankee. Thus far Iodine 131 has been the main culprit identified in causing health problems following the Chernobyl disaster. Like its non-radioactive cousin, radioactive iodine tends to concentrate in the human thyroid gland.

Connecticut is the corporate home of Northeast Utilities and has been the state most dependent on nuclear power. It is also corporate home to General Electric, designer and seller of most of the nation’s worst nuclear reactors, such as Millstone 1. Not far east of Millstone, in Groton, the General Dynamics Electric Boat Company has built most of the U.S. Navy’s nuclear powered submarines, including all the Tridents. The U.S. Sub Base just north of Electric Boat homeports 20 nuclear powered attack submarines as well.

Connecticut is also home to some of the nation’s worst nuclear contamination. Because of its heavy past dependence on defense contracts and nuclear power, there is still a strong denial of possible health consequences from the state’s nuclear contamination, both in the media and the general population. But as Northeast Utilities and its nuclear credibility crumble, so too may the bland assurances of all the proper authorities. <

 

Michael Steinberg is originally from a small seacoast town west of Millstone Nuclear Power Station. He is an investigative reporter, currently based in Durham, North Carolina and is working on a book <W0>Millstone and Me, chronicling Millstone’s history and affects on people in the region.