Small-scale US nuclear reactor blamed for spiking cancer rates, casting pall over Russia’s FNPP fetish

Publish date: March 7, 2011

Written by: Charles Digges

AMSTERDAM – A small nuclear power plant operated the United States at Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound has been implicated in dozens of cases of an unusual cancer in personnel who worked at or near the station between the years 1964 and 1973, US and New Zealand media have indicated.

Newspapers and television stations from San Diego, Ohio, Florida, Idaho and other states have charged that former naval personnel who worked on an Antarctic military action called “Operation Deep Freeze” contracted their cancers from working at or near the station during it’s short nine-year operational period.

The reactor, a PM-3A 1.75 Megawatt installation that also provided heating and water desalinization, was used to power the McMurdo US Naval Station.

The PM-3A reactor operated on uranium-235 fuel of 93 percent enrichment, according to official US Navy documents.

Staff nicknamed reactor ‘nukey poo’ because of frequent radioactive leaks

Those interviewed by ABC news also indicated that the reactor at McMurdo Antarctic base was known among staff as “nukey poo” for the frequence and volume of its leaks.

A US naval report issued upon its decommissioning (downloadable to the right) indicated the reactor experienced 438 malfunctions – nearly 56 a year – in its operational lifetime, including leaking water surrounding the reactor and hairline cracks in the reactor lining. The emissions of low level waste water where in direct contravention of the Antarctic Treaty, which bans military operations as well as radioactive waste in Antarctica. In one of the more egregious PM-3A incidents, in 1963, the reactor was shut down due to a lack of coolant in the reactor core.

The plant was finally decommissioned in connection with “possible stress corrosion cracking,” the US Navy said.

The Navy report continued to read that: “The cause of the increased malfunctions is attributable to the fact that the initial control rod drive mechanism system was a complex experimental system which was continually modified in efforts for improvement.”

The Navy report, nonetheless indicated that “no excessive radiation” was found at the McMurdo site, News 10, San Diego, California’s ABC affiliate, reported.

The plant, built by Lockheed-Martin, was designed to fit inside a C-130 Hercules US military cargo transport, but because of fears of what the consequences of a crash would be, the unit was shipped to McMurdo instead, reported ABC.

After the reactor was closed down, the US shipped 7700 cubic metres of radioactive contaminated rock and dirt to California, but passed through Dunedin, with a population of 124,000, the second largest city on New Zealand’s South Island, where it stayed for four days, raising local concerns, the New Zealand news site

Yet, fuel for  McMurdo routinely passed thorugh the New Zealand port of Lyttelton, 12 kilometres south of Christchurch – South Island’s biggest city at 376,000 inhabitants – on US Navy vessels via a secret US-New Zealand agreement that the US would pay for any damage, reported.

First high-profile death

One US naval veteran from Ohio, Charles Swinney, died a year ago after a 16-year-battle with cancer. According to his wife Elaine, who lives in Cleveland, Swinney had some 200 tumours when he died.

Swinney’s wife also told the Cleveland ABC-TV affiliate that her husband had worried for years as his cancer developed that it was a result of his work at the McMurdo Station.

Veterans’ Administration reluctant to acknowledge link

Swinney had written many letters to the US Veterans Administration questioning the link between his cancer and the reactor but received few responses.

The Veterans Administration is especially touchy about admitting to cases of radioactive contamination. Over the 10 years US forces have been using depleted uranium body armour, combat vehicle armour and bullets in its various and ongoing conflicts in the Middle East, the Veterans Administration has refused to admit that so-called Gulf War Syndrome has anything to do with radiation poisoning, instead pathologizing this veterans group as shell shocked.

Swinney’s death brings more complaints

The initial media reports connecting Swinney’s death to his work with the McMurdo reactor brought forth an avalanche of other complaints lodged to the US Department of Veterans Affairs and Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown from other veterans of the McMurdo site suffering from cancer.

The Department of Veterans Affairs and Brown have promised to assist veterans in determining if there is a connection between the nuclear plant and veterans who have filed claims, said ABC in Cleveland.

Brown told ABC that he is sending letters to both US Defence Secretary Robert Gates and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki with requests to investigate veterans’ cancer claims.

Thomas Pamperin, the Veterans Administration’s Deputy Under Secretary for Policy thanked the media “for its work on this important issue.”

“We are committed to working with the Department of Defense, veteran service organizations and veterans to ensure that all those who may have been exposed at McMurdo Station receive the maximum amount of care and benefits they are entitled to under the law,” Pamperin told ABC news in Cleveland.

Acknowledged links to cancer unlikely soon

But this comes as cold comfort to those who are still suffering from cancers that the US Veterans Administration has yet to connect to the McMurdo Station to the illness.

Jim Landy of Pensacola is fighting stomach, liver and brain cancer that he links to McMurdo.

“I believe it was a greater risk than we all assumed,” Landy told ABC-TV.

Another veteran in Wisconsin survived testicular and lung cancer according to New Zealand’s

Bob Boyles of North Carolina told of how he collapsed and was rushed to hospital, and was told that he was suffering from radiation-related cancer.

“The first thing the doctors asked me was, well, that’s the type of cancer you typically get from exposure from radiation,” Boyles said.

ABC said before dying in 2002 Karl Sackman of Idaho, another naval officer who served at the McMurdo station, wrote the Veterans Administration saying there had been leaks at the plant.

The US Army nuclear programme and its Russian cousin

The PM-3A reactor was part of the United States Army Nuclear Power Programme (ANPP), which was initiated in 1954. Highly secretive, the programme was geared toward generating electrical and space-heating energy primarily at remote, relatively inaccessible sites – a programme that bears comparison to Russia’s obsession with floating nuclear power plants (FNPPs), the first of which was constructed by the ANPP. Russia christened its first FNPP, the Academician Lomonosov in July.

The ANPP’s several stated objectives, as outlined in the Army Nuclear Power Program: Past, Present, Future of 1969, include many that are currently being forwarded by the worldwide nuclear industry to promote nuclear as a climate friendly technology, and also dovetailed with Russia’s arguments for its floating nuclear power plant programme. The signing of the 123 Agreement between the United States and Russia in January also cites as one of its target areas of cooperation on the development of small scale nuclear power stations.

Among the ANPP’s goals were to reduce dependence on fossil fuel; reduction or elimination of logistic burden necessary to support conventional power plants; infrequent refueling and maintenance; reduced crew size; with ultimate goal of unattended operation; transportability and mobility, and improved cost-effectiveness. One of the ANPP’s inaugural reactors, a PM-2A, which like its namesake, ran on 93 percent enriched uranium-235, operated from 1960 to 1963, 73 metres below the ice of Greenland in tunnels drilled for the purpose. The PM-2A was the first portable nuclear facility, having been prefabricated for installation in the ice tunnels at Camp Century east of the Thule NATO airbase. ANPP documents show that the PM-2A’s purpose was to test whether reactors could be built in remote locations using prefabricated parts. The PM-2A was also to used to study neutron embrittlement in carbon steel.

Yet, the PM-2A served other purposes as well: to test the US capability of building large military bases in Greenland to avert attack by the Soviet Army during the Cold War days that preceded the advent of intercontinental ballisticc missiles. The US miliary has issued no indications that any of the some 220 workers who operated Camp Century have developed health difficulties. Records, however, show that three workers were killed at the SL-1 boiling water ANPP reactor at the Idaho Nuclear Reactor Testing Station in January 1961. The accident causing the deaths occured when the reactor went from shut down to promt critical, or a rapid, exponential increase of fission events in the reactor. These are the only deaths acknowledged to have occured within the ANPP programme.

Viewed through the looking glass of Russia’s experience with it’s floating nuclear power plant programme, each of the ANPP’s objectives are unattainable or have been discredited.

Russia has found that the logistics of even finding customers for its ANPP’s outweigh even the logistics of operating the plants. Russia has staked a financial bonanza on prospective orders for the plants, but there are, simply, no takers. And if there were, the logistics of securing such a plant against terrorists or accidents in remote areas would require at least the staff of a stationary plant.

As far as unmanned nuclear power installations are concerned, Russia’s experience with its strontium-90 powered lighthouses and navigational beacons provide ample cause for skepticism. Known as Radioisotope Thermoelectric Generators, or RTGs, the Soviet nuclear authority Minatom placed several hundred these untended radioactive installations throughout the USSR. With the fall of the Soviet Union came the loss of records about where these objects were placed, and in the ensuing poverty of the 90s these undocumented radiation sources fell prey to metal scavengers, who then became sick with radiation poisoning. Strontium pits have also been left untended – bait for terrorists seeking raw materials to construct crude “dirty bombs.”

Cost effectiveness of small nuclear installations, as witnessed by the Russian experience with FNPPs, is highly dubious as well. Originally billed as a $150 million project in 2001, Russia’s state nuclear corporation has upwardly adjusted the cost of an FNPP to $550 million by 2010. Of this, the reactor block alone cost $456.7 million. With the going rate for the construction of a stationary reactor approaching $1 billion, the 500 percent increase in Russia’s mobile reactors is not encouraging.

According to documents, the ANPP programme was quick to recognize its impracticality. The majority of the reactors built by the ANPP programme were already out of service by 1973. Officially, the programme continued until 1977, but that was largely efforts devoted to decommissioning and dismantlement.