Nuclear power in Arizona may be expanding. A recent federal report concluded there are no environmental threats to keeping the Palo Verde reactors open until 2047, 20 years after the current limit.
In addition, Gov. Jan Brewer's energy plan lumps in nuclear power as part of her definition of "clean energy," suggesting that new reactors may be built. Both Brewer's definition and the federal report are wrong - nukes aren't clean.
Reactors generate huge amounts of radioactivity, consisting of over 100 chemicals only found in atomic bombs. The average reactor's core and waste storage areas hold the equivalent of hundreds of Hiroshima bombs, and must be constantly cooled with water.
Loss of cooling water from mechanical failure or terrorist attack would mean a meltdown, releasing huge amounts of radiation, and many thousands would suffer from cancer or radiation poisoning. Some radiation is also emitted routinely into air and water, entering bodies by breathing and the food chain. It is especially harmful to the young.
Palo Verde, the largest nuclear plant in the U.S., may have emitted more radioactivity than other plants. In 2007, for example, it released at least four times more airborne radioactive tritium (radioactive hydrogen) than any U.S. plant. Official measurements in Phoenix air and precipitation show levels of tritium and other radioactive chemicals are rising. The death rate among children and young adults in Tonopah (closest to Palo Verde) is about twice as high as the U.S.
Palo Verde produces less than one-quarter of the electricity in Arizona. Keeping old reactors and building new ones may be a risky way to generate this small share. Using the state's ample sun energy - a risk-free source that lasts forever - may be the more prudent course.
Joseph J. Mangano
Joseph J. Mangano MPH MBA is Executive Director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research and education group based in New York.