WAFF Investigates: Health concerns at Browns Ferry - CBS 3 Springfield - WSHM

WAFF Investigates: Health concerns at Browns Ferry

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HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) -

A local citizens' advocacy group is calling out the nuclear industry and taking on Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant.

The group issued a report with claims of devastating effects to our area.

Effects they say are a result of high levels of radiation in the air, water and land in counties downwind from Browns Ferry.

We examined those claims, separating fact from fiction.

The report, titled "Radioactive Emissions and Health Hazards Surrounding Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant in Alabama," (PDF) brings up a litany of concerns.

It was commissioned by the Bellefonte Efficiency and Sustainability Team and Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation.

Pages of detail on radiation released into the atmosphere, radioactive materials in our drinking water and extremely high rates of cancer; all implied as directly connected to Browns Ferry.

Perhaps most shocking of all, the group's claims about infant mortality rates - rates that are more than 20% higher than the national average.

If you haven't figured it out just by the group's name, their fight is to protect future generation from radiation.

The group regularly requests the nuclear regulatory commission shut Browns Ferry down.

"We feel they are in danger," said Gretel Johnston is a founder of Mother's Against Tennessee River Radiation.

"They," being the hundreds of thousands of people who live in the seven counties surrounding the plant, including Limestone County, where the plant has been operating since 1974.

She and her colleague Gary Morgan, with the help of about 30 other members, did the ground work for the research behind the report.

The group tested 50 sites around Browns Ferry and relied on readings from their Geiger counter, detecting nuclear radiation emissions.

They hired a researcher to compile their findings for the report which shows major radiation in counties downwind from Browns Ferry.

The group stops short of placing direct blame on Browns Ferry but it is certainly implied.

"I will not say that Browns Ferry is the cause of the high radiation levels, but I will say we found high levels downwind of Browns Ferry and background levels upwind," added Johnston.

The report relies on federal data on infant mortality rates surrounding the plant to make a case that, if taken as fact, should be terrifying to every parent and potential parent in the Tennessee valley.

WAFF asked if that was the report's purpose.

"Yes, I am trying to scare people, but I'm not an extremist. I'm trying to scare people with the data, with just the facts," said Johnston.

The facts are the group used data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to justify their claim that the mortality rate for infants in seven counties surrounding Browns Ferry has risen significantly.

Before the plant opened, 1969-1973 infant mortality was more than the national rate by 6.5%.

Browns Ferry started up its first nuclear reactor 1974 and brought the other reactors online over the next three years.

In that time frame the infant mortality rate nearly doubles from that initial 6.5% to 12% higher than the national average.

Over the next 36 years the numbers go up and down but by 2004 they rise to more than 22% higher than the national average.

The American Council on Science and Health is an organization that exists to debunk what they call junk science, and Doctor Josh Bloom says that's exactly what this report is.

"They are using selective data and they are picking out the numbers that supports their case and they are ignoring the others and trying to bury them," said Bloom.

Bloom said looking at the number and not the percentages, local infant deaths have actually declined and declined a lot from 1,084 in the 5 years before the plant opened to 573 in the last 5 years studied.

Bloom added that the statistical claims are critically flawed to make a point that doesn't exist. "There's simply a problem with the data and it's not reflecting anything real."

The mere mention of the words radiation and death can shock a community.

"It triggers fear but studies like this enhance that fear but they do it falsely," added Bloom.

So when it comes to radiation do you worry about the actual number of deaths or the percentage?

Health officials we spoke with say that is a flawed question. Why? Because there are so many other factors that could be contributing to children dying. 

Like a mother's access to prenatal care, poverty levels, drug use, education, and the list goes on and on.

Back to separating fact from fiction, is Browns Ferry somehow responsible for children dying? Nothing we have seen can conclusively back that claim.

Either way, our questions were enough for TVA officials to sit down with me and give answers.

"The report does tend to imply (Browns Ferry) may be behind these concerns, the problem is that data, that leap of logic is simply not supported by data from TVA, the state of Alabama supplies or the NRC reviews," said TVA Spokesperson Jim Hopson.

We took a look at that data, and according to TVA's latest radiological report (pdf):

In 2012, a person would have been exposed to 0.28 millirems of radiation released from the plant.

To put that in perspective, just one dental x-ray exposes a human to 5.0 millirems.

"Anything that is released from the plant, whether that's air, water, or anything is carefully filtered, monitored and assured that it is not a hazard to the public. All of those releases meet or exceed regulatory requirements every day, every time of the year," added Hopson.

In Montgomery, the Department of Public Health's Office of Radiation Control is responsible for ensuring that's a true statement.

24 hours a day, seven radiation monitors surround Browns Ferry.

"We have years of data, 40 some odd years of data and we've never been able to find anything that would prove they've had a excessive release of radioactivity," said Office of Radiation Control Director.      

That isn't to say Browns Ferry hasn't had problems, in researching this story we found in 2011, the NRC hit TVA with a red finding, a violation on step away from shutting the plant down after a broken valve was discovered that would have prevented TVA from successfully implementing a shutdown procedure in case of emergency.

In July, WAFF 48 News was the only camera at NRC headquarters in Atlanta where TVA officials had to answer for a shutdown caused by operator error last December.

Just this past September, Browns Ferry had two weeks to fix yet another problem, this time with faulty wiring leading to a reactor.  

With the past problems and present claims from advocacy groups, and claims from TVA that the plant is perfectly safe.

"One of the ways to do that is to practice. We have updated emergency drills at the site, our staff as well as the state and local agencies on what we would do in the event that emergency would occur," added Hopson.

Hopson said the plant has backups to their backup systems to safely shutdown the plant in case of an emergency and is constantly training and retraining its employees.

"The men and women who work for us take that very seriously. For a report to make a somewhat unsubstantiated claim against their work is really a discredit to what they do every day to protect the general public," said Hopson.

That is exactly what the Mothers Against Tennessee River Radiation say they are trying to do, protect the public. They say no matter what TVA says about radiation risks, the fact is this, there are high cancer rates across the Tennessee Valley.

They are correct, According to Alabama's Cancer Registry, Morgan County does have the highest cancer rate in the state and surrounding counties have higher cancer rates than many other parts of the state.

"That's telling you something, folks. Something is there in our environment that is causing high cancer rates. Government data is showing there is high cancer rates in the river valley, children are dying, adults are dying. The people the public that live in our valley, they have a right to know what's going on. Is it Browns Ferry that's causing it, well there's some peculiar incidences," said Gary Morgan.

Copyright 2013 WAFF. All rights reserved.

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