Does Yucca Mountain Pose a Health Risk to Southern Nevadans? KDWN's Dr. Daliah Explains

This week the House approved a bill (340-72) to revive the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Project in Nevada, the future site of the nation’s radioactive nuclear waste.  It is located 80 miles northwest of Las Vegas.  While the Yucca project is being built, temporary storage facilities will be established in New Mexico and Texas.  This leaves millions of Americans wondering, what are the health risks to living near a nuclear waste dump?

Currently so far so safe…..

Currently nuclear waste is stored in 121 different sites throughout 39 states.  Nuclear Regulatory Commission studies have NOT found an increase risk to cancer or other health effects in those living near nuclear sites.  Now they actually dropped the cancer risk study citing it would take as long as 10 years and cost over $8 million, but endorsed a previous study from 1990 by the National Cancer Institute finding no increased risk of death from cancer in people near nuclear facilities.

Does transport of nuclear waste pose a risk?

Small if any.  Transport vehicles have been transporting nuclear waste for years without incident. True many have not converged like a Walking Dead Terminus on one locationposing concern for terrorist attacks, but radioactive material has been transported to multiple other facilities throughout the world without exposure to nearby residents.

When would a nuclear dump site pose risks to residents?

Federal guidelines implore that the site safely stores waste for at least 10,000 years.  Although Yucca Mountain’s immediate area has not shown sign of earthquake activity, several active faults surround the site.   Ground disruption could cause release of radioactive material and since Nevada isn’t a site plagued with hurricanes or tsunamis, earthquake potential remains the highest risk for a nuclear leak at Yucca Mountain.

What would be the health risks of radiation leakage from Yucca Mountain?

When determining health risks we look at what resulted from other nuclear disasters.  With the 1986 Chernobyl accident, for example, The World Nuclear Association (WNA) reports:

Out of the 134 severely exposed workers and firemen, 28 of the most heavily exposed died as a result of acute radiation syndrome (ARS) within three months of the accident.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), “the number of deaths in Russian emergency workers attributable to radiation caused by solid neoplasms and circulatory system diseases can be estimated to be about 116 and 100 cases respectively.” They continue, “the number of leukemia cases attributable to radiation in this cohort can be estimated to be about 30.”

Reassuringly, the WNA stated:

There has been no increase attributable to Chernobyl in congenital abnormalities, adverse pregnancy outcomes or any other radiation-induced disease in the general population either in the contaminated areas or further afield.

Thyroid cancer cases however were increased in surrounding countries in the aftermath, with one study diagnosing 6 of 100,000 screened in a Turkish population (Acar, et al.)

 

What about potassium iodide tablets?

These tablets help protect your thyroid from taking up radioactive iodine, as they saturate the organ.  It’s an inexpensive pill that will protect one against thyroid cancer but not the other medical sequelae of nuclear exposure such as bone marrow injury and skin irritation.

 

So the establishment of a nuclear dump site in the Nevada desert is not ideal by any means, however, it does not pose immediate or long-term health threats assuming no natural disasters or acts of terror cause a disruption in storage.

 

Daliah Wachs, MD, FAAFP