by Kayla Dwyer
The rumor mill churns quickly in a small suburb. In 1968, it churned out talk of an unusual amount of farmland being sold in Limerick,
Pennsylvania. Community members at the time were unsure of what the land was being sold for — many talked about a new automobile plant. Then people began to talk about a nuclear power plant coming to town.
In October of 1969, Philadelphia Electric held a cocktail party at the old Collegeville Inn, now a decrepit white building on the banks of the Perkiomen Creek in Collegeville, where company spokespeople announced the building of a nuclear plant.
About 10 miles away — at the edge of Limerick, in sight of the land, where the towers would be built — a school superintendent and a shopkeeper would soon launch a decades-long campaign against it.
Portraits line the wall that ascends the stairs of the Cuthberts’ split-level home — photos of three generations of grandparents and grandchildren. CNN is muted on the television in the 70s-decorated living room, with beige couches that sink in at the slightest provocation. Donna Cuthbert sits back on a white recliner in a blue bed dress, sunglasses on, fingers draping over the edges of the arm rest. She’s exhausted from a previous week in the hospital, but her voice carries through her half smile and still body.
The year before, she had been diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. She knows she can never prove it directly, but part of her blames the nuclear reactors a couple miles away. She and her husband, Lewis Cuthbert, have spent the past two decades researching the reactors in Limerick: radioactive emissions, local cancer rates, company practices. Lewis hasn’t let go of his educator persona — every discussion is an opportunity for a lesson, for teaching and for learning. He speaks with an ear angled toward the person opposite him, an eyebrow raised, hands gesticulating. His hair is white but body limber; his ice blue eyes scan and observe intently.
The surrounding area is farmland-turned-suburbia, one of the suburbs of Philadelphia that saw rapid home development over the past couple decades. It’s flat and green, with a shopping center here and there, but the cooling towers stand taller than any structure outside of the city, 40 miles away.
Down the carpet-lined stairs of Donna and Lewis Cuthbert’s home, to the right, is a room filled with black trifold posters, some with colorful maps, others with bold headlines, tables of data, newspaper clippings, and photos of children who died of cancer. A cloth map spans one of the walls, covered with stickers demarcating Pottstown residents with cancer — the result of Donna’s handing out 14,000 community health surveys, door to door.
To the left of the stairs is another room that smells like paper. The walls are lined with shelves and cabinets filled with binders and stacks of paperwork: public hearing testimonies; data from the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry; reports from Exelon, the company that owns the nearby nuclear plant; records of politicians’ words and actions about the plant; handouts to provide at seminars and public hearings. Where papers aren’t in binders, they are piled up in the center table, some stacks clipped together.
Just beyond the house, in a clearing, the two large towers come into view, and from them plumes of steam rise up and join the clouds.
Donna Cuthbert first heard talk about radioactive emissions being a concern in 1995. She was working 12 hours a day at her mother’s women’s fashion store in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, but she always took time to see her grandchildren.
One afternoon in 1995, she went to her daughter’s apartment to watch her granddaughter. The realtor next door started talking about landfills and reactors, pegging them as the source of the stench in the air and the reason children were getting sick.
“You’d do well not to let your granddaughter play outside,” he told her.
Donna is not one to take claims and believe them. But she’ll give people the benefit of the doubt, hear them out, interject with her skepticism, and then do her own digging. What he started to tell her — and then would continue to elaborate in her home that night, until the early hours — aligned with what she had been noticing: the sick children, the toxic smell.
Though a direct causal link between environmental factors and cancer incidence is difficult to prove, the Cuthberts had spent two decades trying to do so — as have other nonprofits and scientists — ever since that night they talked with the realtor. The two strongest links to the nuclear plant that they talk about are radioisotopes Strontium-90, tied to bone cancer, and Iodine-131, tied to thyroid cancer, both of which are emitted by the plant.
A study of more than 2000 baby teeth conducted by scientists with the nonprofit Radiation and Public Health Project, published in the journal Science of the Total Environment, revealed that levels of Strontium-90 in baby teeth increased by 49.5 percent for people born in the 1990s compared to the 1980s. The concentration of Sr-90 in baby teeth of Limerick residents were 53.2 percent higher than that of municipalities in other counties.
Exelon acknowledges in its public materials the notable radiation emissions of Iodine-131 and says the detection levels are “extremely low.” But by the Cuthberts’ estimate, citing the Pennsylvania Cancer Registry, there was a 128 percent increase in thyroid cancer from 1985 to 1996 and this increase is 56.2 percent higher than the national average. Fishable data on the cancer registry’s website is now not available before 1990, but a current calculation of thyroid cancer rates — including invasive, early- and late-stage, local and regional cases in Montgomery County — show a steady climb in incidence rate per 100,000 people since then. Humans absorb iodine as it naturally occurs in fish and vegetables grown in iodine-rich soil, and it’s stored in the thyroid gland as a key ingredient for making thyroid hormone. But that means the gland is also good at absorbing radioactive iodine — Iodine-131 — which can mutate cells and develop into thyroid cancer. Health studies found a large spike in thyroid cancer incidence in Ukraine following the Chernobyl meltdown.
Exelon’s Annual Radiological Environmental Operating Report from 2014, addressed to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), discusses the detection of Strontium-90 in vegetation and Cesium-137 in sediment, but says they are consistent with “background levels” — the doses deemed permissible by the NRC. But following the Fukushima meltdown, the Environmental Protection Agency proposed new, much higher background levels for radioactive isotopes, thousands of times higher than previous levels. The new Protective Action Guidelines lists the new drinking-water level for Iodine-131 at 10,350 picocuries per liter, and the previous limit was 3; it sets the strontium-90 limit at 7,400 pCi/L, whereas the previous level was 8.
Meanwhile, the National Academy of Sciences 2005 BEIR VII report established that there is “no safe dose” of radiation.
When Donna speaks of that first day she became involved, she remembers it with a laugh, recalling what she told Lewis when she returned home from visiting her granddaughter.
“I either met a nut today, or we have a real problem,” she told him.
The Cuthberts’ focus today is exclusively on shutting down the plant: the third spoke in what they call a toxic triangle. It started with the Pottstown Landfill in 1995 — documenting the incidents of childhood cancers and disabilities, gathering a coalition of people to protest against it, forming the Alliance for a Clean Environment in 1997. Then, ACE rallied people and officials to speak out against a proposed pipeline transporting radioactive waste across town to the Occidental Chemical boilers, an idea that never came to fruition. Occidental Chemical was the second leg of the triangle, which ACE got the EPA to inspect for dioxin and carcinogens emitting from the site. Instead of paying the $1 million fine, Oxy closed in 2005, as did the landfill.
The NRC approved renewed licenses for each of the reactors in 2014 for another 20 years — 10 years before the first 40-year licenses were up. These licenses allow the first reactor to operate until 2044 and the second until 2049. But the Cuthberts have been collecting data, giving talks and spreading the word for over 22 years — since the late night they spent with the realtor and his many documents — and they intend to continue.
“That’s where it all got started,” Donna said.
“And there was no stopping at that point,” Lewis added.
The Limerick nuclear facility has two Boiling Water Reactor (BWR) units capable of producing 1,200 megawatts of power each, powering 2 million homes. They operate at 100 percent power all the time, except for a few outages. The American design is used in about 10 countries, and its counterpart — Pressurized Water Reactor (PWR) — is the most widely used in the world. Both designs use enriched uranium dioxide as fuel and water as coolant. In a PWR, the water then enters a steam generator, but the BWR does not have a steam generator; instead, the water boils in the reactor and raises steam directly to produce electrical power, leading to some radioactive contamination of the steam circuit.
These reactors — like most in operation today, built in the 1980s and 1990s — are considered second-generation, thermal nuclear reactors. Generation III designs are evolved versions of Generation II light-water reactor technology and are in construction in several countries. But Generation IV nuclear reactors — fast neutron reactors — would produce much more energy and much less waste with the same amount of uranium.
Thermal reactors must first slow down energetic neutrons before they can initiate the chain reactions that produce electricity. Fast neutron reactors do not need to do this step — they can capture fast moving neutrons — and can extract 50 times more energy from uranium than today’s reactors. They can also recycle discharged fuel into the chain reaction — spent fuel that thermal reactors must discard as waste.
These fourth-generation designs exist, but the first commercially available Generation IV reactor may not be available until at least 2030, or 2040, by some projections. The technology is still underdeveloped for some designs, and the costs are not yet determined. Some countries look to nuclear energy as a means of making transitions to sustainable energy, but studies have found that those who have initiated investment in nuclear have not necessarily reduced their carbon emissions. In these countries, electricity production from oil has decreased, but so has energy production from other renewables. The cost of nuclear energy is still high enough that only relatively wealthy nations have legitimate access, leaving global access to electricity a far-off goal. But fourth-generation nuclear, given its capacity to use 99 percent of the uranium that is mined and to turn spent waste into fuel, could run for several billion years, essentially joining the ranks of wind and solar.
As a means for moving away from a reliance on fossil fuels, fourth-generation nuclear could provide answers. But nearly all of the reactors in place have been depositing radioactive waste that will stay behind for generations — decades longer than families like the Cuthberts have lived there.
The most common question Donna receives from those she fights is, “Why don’t you move?” It takes a lot for her to have a good day, given her diagnoses. The Cuthberts have a triple-layered filtering system on their tap water and solar panels in the backyard. They believe fervently that solar and wind can satisfy the country’s energy demands if it invests appropriately, but they acknowledge the near impossibility of this happening in their lifetimes. They keep researching, giving talks, writing letters, posting videos, all with the hope of inspiring younger people to keep pursuing cleaner energy.
From Donna’s spot on the recliner, she need only look to the right to see her three generations of reasons for staying. “We were here first. Why should we leave?”