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UNC Researchers: Harris Disaster Could Impact 2 Million – News Release by Orange County Citizens for Nuclear Safety


News Release
February 5, 2003


Over two million North Carolinians – one-quarter of the state’s population – live within 50 miles of the Shearon Harris nuclear power plant, according to a report by researchers at the School of Public Health, UNC-Chapel Hill.  People living in that region would be most exposed to radiation released from the reactor or radioactive-waste cooling pools in the event of an accident.

Using 2000 U.S. Census data, Steve Wing, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and Jennifer Norton, a graduate research assistant, estimated that over 485,000 women of child-bearing age, 145,000 children under the age of five, and 200,000 senior citizens live within 50 miles of the Shearon Harris plant.  These groups may be more susceptible to radiation and hazards of evacuation, say the researchers.  Special difficulties would be faced trying to evacuate the approximately 11,000 nursing-home residents and 12,000 prisoners who live in this region, they add.

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) considers a 50-mile radius the potential exposure zone following a serious accident at a reactor or at the cooling pools that hold highly radioactive “spent” fuel rods removed from a reactor core. The 50-mile region around the Harris plant encompasses all of Wake, Durham, Chatham, Orange, Harnett, Johnson, and Lee Counties and large portions of the populations of Alamance, Cumberland, Franklin, Granville, Hoke, and Moore Counties. Residents of 11 other counties are also included.

The researchers conducted their analysis after local emergency management officials voiced serious concerns about protecting the public in the event of a fire in the Shearon Harris waste-storage cooling pools. Harris is the only nuclear plant in the US that imports waste from other reactors and has the largest spent-fuel storage capacity in the country.

A report written in October 2000 by Sandia National Laboratories and the NRC, described in the November 20, 2002, issue of The Journal News, found that the effects of a waste-pool fire could be quite different from those of a reactor meltdown. Radiation from a waste-pool accident could spread as far as 500 miles and would contain cesium 137, a strong source of radiation that can cause cancer, birth defects and genetic damage.  Potassium iodide, which NC Governor Michael Easley recently made available to help protect citizens from the effects of radioactive iodine, does not protect against damage from cesium 137.

The Sandia study also found that a fire could occur 30 years after the rods are first placed in the pool. The NRC and plant operators had previously argued there was little risk of fire after 5 years. Furthermore, radiation could be released within a few hours after the water had drained from the pool, making timely wide-scale evacuation difficult.

“These results tell us that we don’t want to have to rely on evacuation to protect us if there is an accident or attack at Shearon Harris. We should be doing everything humanly possible to avoid a nuclear event and to minimize the impact if one occurs,” said Daniel Morris, head of the Orange County Citizens for Nuclear Safety (OCCNS). OCCNS is a citizens’ group formed to support adoption of the Risk Reduction Plan for Shearon Harris. That plan, endorsed by over 25 elected officials and a number of nuclear scientists, calls for hardened, dispersed on-site storage of high-level radioactive waste, a ban on shipping this waste to Shearon Harris from other plants, and a reevaluation of evacuation plans.  OCCNS is one of several groups calling on NC Attorney General Roy Cooper to mandate the Risk Reduction Plan and is organizing a community forum on the topic.

A copy of the report is available at http://www.NC

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