Bataan Nuclear Power Plant

[OPINION] Activate BNPP? You could increase childhood cancers in Bataan and beyond

Kelvin S. Rodolfo

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[OPINION] Activate BNPP? You could increase childhood cancers in Bataan and beyond
'If we can prevent something, anything that causes childhood cancer, must we not do so?'

The following is the 29th in a series of excerpts from Kelvin Rodolfo’s ongoing book project “Tilting at the Monster of Morong: Forays Against the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant and Global Nuclear Energy.

Our last foray dealt with the cancer threat for BNPP workers and adults living nearby. But many medical studies have revealed that children are especially vulnerable to the toxic environments around nuclear reactors. 

The incidence of cancer in children under 10 years old living within 48 kilometers of 14 nuclear power plants in the United States is elevated 12.4% above the national average and is “particularly elevated for leukemia.” 

KiKK (Epidemiologische Studie zu Kinderkrebs in der Umgebung von KernKraftwerken, or “Epidemiologic Study of Childhood Cancer in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants”), a detailed and widely-cited German study, demonstrated that infants and children under five years old living within five kilometers of all German NPPs had a 60% increase in all cancers and a 120% increase in leukemia. 

 In this figure, modified from that report, the NPPs are blue dots, and the light blue areas are populated zones within 10 kilometers of them. The research involved 593 leukemia cases in those areas, which were compared to 1,766 children living more than 10 kilometers away from the NPPs. Similar results have been reported for NPPs in France, Great Britain, and Switzerland. 

Radiological epidemiologist Ian Fairlie remarks, wryly, on the “…highly statistically significant 37% increase in childhood leukemias within five km of almost all NPPs in the UK, Germany, France, and Switzerland…. World-wide, over 60 epidemiological studies have examined cancer incidences in children near nuclear power plants….  Most (>70%) indicate leukemia increases. I can think of no other toxicology (e.g. asbestos, lead, smoking) with so many studies, and with such clear associations as those between NPPs and child leukemias. 

“…Yet many nuclear governments and the nuclear area industry refute these findings and continue to resist their implications. It’s similar to the situations with cigarette smoking in the 1960s and with man-made global warming nowadays…”

Most of the solid cancers were in babies born with either solid cancers or pre-cancerous tissues that grew into tumors after birth. This also happened with leukemia. Whatever caused the cancers must have affected the babies while still unborn.  

Fairlie thinks the cause is large periodic emissions of radioactive gases from the reactors. Every year or so, to replace fuel assemblies they are depressurized and opened. This swells the environmental radioactivity hundreds of times above background levels. 

Pregnant women near and downwind during those emissions may be exposed to concentrations 20 to 100 times higher than normal. The blood-forming stem cells in fetal bone marrow are “likely to be among the most radiosensitive…. [They] are self-renewing: when they divide, some daughter cells remain stem cells, so the number of stem cells stays about the same. Radiation-induced mutations to stem cells could result in increased malformation rates of white blood cells.” 

A likely culprit is Tritium, the heaviest isotope of hydrogen. Tritium is extremely rare in nature, but in pressurized nuclear reactors like BNPP, Boron 10 is used to absorb excess neutrons in both the reactor and in spent-fuel pools. Usually, that reaction produces harmless Helium-4  and Lithium-7, but some Tritium is also produced:

Tritium atoms have two additional neutrons in their nuclei and thus are three times more massive than normal hydrogen atoms. The half-life of tritium is about 12.25 years – very short compared, say, to plutonium 240. A tritium atom decays when one of its neutrons emits a beta particle – a high-speed electron – and becomes a proton. That transforms the tritium atom into one of chemically inert and harmless Helium 3 gas.  

Both regular hydrogen and tritium atoms have a single proton in their nuclei, so they behave chemically the same way. Thus, tritium is readily incorporated into water, hydroxides, and carbohydrates, which can then be incorporated into living tissue. 

Having relatively low energy, beta particles can’t penetrate human skin from the outside. But if tritium is inhaled or ingested and then becomes part of a living cell – part of DNA, for example – and decays, it may cause cancer.

A Canadian study shows how the environments within a kilometer of nuclear power plants – the soils, vegetation, and foods – all have tritium levels several thousand times above background, and still are 10 times above normal a hundred kilometers away. 

Much of Metro Manila is closer to BNPP than that. 

Furthermore, recent research shows that tritium from Korea’s Wolsong nuclear power plant becomes atmospheric water vapor, and not more than 30% of it falls as rain within 30 kilometers from the plant. The rest goes farther. 

Significantly for the Philippines, “the concentrations of tritium in the water-vapor in spring were approximately seven times higher than those in fall and winter, mainly owing to the wind directions at the power plant location.” 

Thus, more BNPP tritium could be expected to reach Metro Manila during the habagat months of the Southwest Monsoon, roughly from June to October. Conversely, more would be transported to Northern Luzon and adjacent areas of Taiwan and China by the northeast amihan (Northeast Monsoon) winds during the rest of the year.

Implications for the children of Bataan

Focusing more closely on the BNPP, we end by applying the German KiKK data on childhood leukemia near NPPs to the BNPP with this figure:

The circle with a 10-kilometer radius centered on the BNPP extends northward to the Subic Bay International Airport, and includes the entire Bataan municipalities of Morong and Bagac, with respective populations of 29,901 and 26,936 according to the 2015 census. Most of those people live within five kilometers of BNPP. 

The risk of leukemia after birth to fetuses conceived within that zone would be more than doubled, should BNPP be activated. At the outer limits of the 10-km circle the risk would be increased by 33%.

The risk would also be raised to lesser degrees for all people conceived in the areas of this map outside the 10-km circle, to Metro Manila and beyond.

A painful personal note

“Bataan” isn’t supposed to mean “Place of Children,” but driving homeward to Zambales through Bataan while school is letting out certainly makes it seem so.

They say that the world’s worst curse is the Gypsies’ “May you outlive your children!” The curse descended on our family when our elder son Kenneth was stricken with cancer at age nine. What a sweet, smart, sensitive soul. 

He died after 20 months of surgery, therapy, and pain – especially his, but ours also. It’s been almost half a century; our loss remains deeply felt, and always will be. 

Ken’s illness was not caused by radioactivity or nuclear power. But if we can prevent something, anything that causes childhood cancer, must we not do so?  

It is also said that no misfortune is so bad that some good, however small, cannot come out of it. If Kenneth’s fatal illness helps motivate me to work so that living and future children are spared from BNPP cancer, his life will have some meaning beyond those of us who were blessed to know him.

Our next foray is the first of six about radioactive wastes and how badly they are handled. It all started at Hanford, making plutonium for Nagasakis’s Fat Boy and for the Cold War. –

Born in Manila and educated at UP Diliman and the University of Southern California, Dr. Kelvin Rodolfo taught geology and environmental science at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1966. He specialized in Philippine natural hazards since the 1980s.

Keep posted on Rappler for the next installment of Rodolfo’s series.

Previous pieces from Tilting at the Monster of Morong:

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