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How Safe Are Nuclear Power Plants?

The recent tragedy in Japan has driven home to many in the United States the dangers present in our own backyard. While we are reminded of our vulnerability to natural disaster, a particular emerging concern is over the safety of our own nuclear power plants. As the leading producer of nuclear energy, the U.S. has 104 active nuclear power plants, with more slated to be built. Though the debate has raged for decades over the safety of these plants, recent events and even U.S. history have proven there is a definite risk inherent in producing nuclear power.

After an earthquake and subsequent tsunami critically damaged Japan’s Fukushima nuclear power plant, workers and residents were imperiled by the risk of exposure to radiation. While a full meltdown of the reactor cores has thus far been narrowly avoided, damage to the plant has already begun to show effects in the surrounding area. Tests have shown radiation in the area produce, tap and sea water, as well as readings of dangerous plutonium in the soil. Nearby residents were evacuated when the dangers became known, but workers have risked their lives to remain behind to stabilize the reactors. What can’t be fully understood at this point is the ultimate effect of exposure on residents and workers’ health both immediately and long-term.

When the nuclear power plant in Chernobyl, Ukraine experienced a complete destruction of its core in 1986, the worst case scenario occurred. The radiation released in the area was estimated to equal that of 400 Hiroshima atomic bombs. With few safety measures in place to prevent the spreading of radiation, a thirty kilometer area surrounding the plant had to be abandoned due to extreme contamination. Twenty-eight people at the site died of Acute Radiation Syndrome, but over 600,000 people were considered “significantly exposed” to radiation.

In 1979, the Three Mile Island nuclear plant in Pennsylvania experienced a partial meltdown of one of its nuclear core. Though a full meltdown was avoided and the threat contained, forty thousand gallons of radioactive wastewater was released into a nearby river. Sadly, in the United States, these risks still exist. A report by the Nuclear Safety Project cited fourteen “near misses” (“events that raised the risk to the reactor core”) in U.S. nuclear power plants in 2010.

For humans, exposure to radiation can cause anything from no clear effects or a mild burn to the destruction of bone marrow, birth defects, cancers and/or death. Exposure can be immediate or gradual, and damage may not emerge until years later. This is a particular concern for nuclear power workers, as even mild levels of exposure over long periods of time can have a cumulative effect on one’s health. With this in mind, more people are looking closely at the nuclear plants in their own states. Recently, two Illinois senators held a meeting to address concerns over the state’s leading number of nuclear reactors and nuclear waste production. The senators questioned the storage of the plants’ nuclear waste near Lake Michigan, an immense source of drinking water, as well as expressed concerns that emergency evacuation plans for the areas around the plants were insufficient.

Recent events are an important reminder to always be aware of the real risks associated with living near or working at nuclear energy plants or their waste storage sites. Be mindful of evacuation routes and plans, as well as the symptoms of radiation exposure. If you believe you have already been affected, contact a Illinois personal injury attorney who can assist you.

About the Author: Brooke Haley marketing associate at Millon & Peskin, Chicago workers compensation lawyer that practice in the areas of Civil Litigation, Workers’ Compensation, and Personal Injury. Millon & Peskin is a General Civil Litigation Practice with the goal of representing the interests of injured workers, throughout all applicable Courts within the State of Illinois. For more information, please visit http://www.millonpeskin.com.

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