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Braidwood Nuclear Power Plant

The Braidwood Nuclear Power Plant furnishes electrical power to homes and businesses in the Chicago Metro area. Two Westinghouse reactors have a generative capacity of over 2.3 gigawatts, making it the largest power station in Illinois.

History and Operation

The Braidwood facility was designed by the architectural firm of Sargent and Lundy; construction began in 1976 and was financed by Commonwealth Edison. The $5.2 billion facility first came online in the summer of 1987; however, commercial operations did not begin until a year later. Currently, operations at Braidwood are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission through 2027.

The facility is currently owned and operated by the Exelon Corporation; maintenance and day-to-day management is undertaken by a staff of 825 engineers, laborers and clerical workers.

Toxins

The Illinois State EPA discovered that by 2005, the Braidwood facility had been leaking tritium-contaminated wastes into the ground water for nine years. Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen believed to be carcinogenic.

Lawsuits are now pending against Exelon over the tritium issue as well as asbestos.

The Asbestos Connection

Flame, excessive heat and electricity are all hazards at power generation plants. Because of this, power generation facilities made extensive use of asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) in their construction; such materials could also be used in the turbine machinery itself. Other asbestos hazards include:

  • electrical cloth
  • fire doors
  • pipe and conduit lagging
  • work surfaces

When these materials became friable (a crumbling state in which fibers are released into the environment), the resulting asbestos dust was not only inhaled, but could become lodged in workers' hair and clothing, subjecting unsuspecting family members to the hazards of secondary exposure.

In 2003, medical researchers in Puerto Rico examined chest x-rays from 1100 power plant workers. Signs of asbestos disease were seen in 13% of the subjects. Power plants are considered to be among the most hazardous industrial jobsites when it comes to asbestos by industrial safety experts. Those who were employed at such facilities prior to the early 1980s should discuss this with a medical professional if possible and receive frequent check-ups. Asbestos diseases such as mesothelioma have long latency periods; symptoms may not be apparent until several decades after such exposure.

The good news is that recent advances in medical technology have enabled pathologists to detect the “markers” of asbestos cancer in its earliest stages, when it is treatable.

Through the 1970s, it was normal for factories, mills, power plants and worksites to use asbestos because it excelled at blocking fire. It is ironic that protecting human life was typically one of the primary justifications for using asbestos in places for the result was actually to put workers at risk of serious illness or death due to asbestos exposure. The reason large numbers of people have become ill from health conditions such as "miner's lung" and cancer of the lungs is that when humans inhale particles of asbestos, the mineral remains in internal organs; once there, the sharp, microscopic spikes damage organs. The most deadly of the asbestos-related illnesses is mesothelioma, which is a form of cancer that involves the cells lining the pleural cavity; it is almost always a death sentence for those who contract it. Treatments like mesothelioma chemotherapy are available from doctors like Dr. David Sugarbaker at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA.

Now, we are aware of the risks of inhaling asbestos, and government regulations protect people whose jobs put them in contact with this material. Even as late as the 1970s, however, laborers unprotected by masks or other safety equipment often toiled in places thick with asbestos dust. Family members were also exposed to asbestos when job sites didn't offer workplace-only uniforms, because employees inadvertently transported asbestos particles to their homes in their clothes and hair.

Men and women who were employed at this site during their career, as well as their family members, should learn more about these health conditions and inform their family doctors about their history of contact with asbestos, because the signs of diseases such as mesothelioma can be mistaken for those of other, less serious conditions.

Sources

Sources

Cabrera-Santiago, Manuel et al. “Prevalence of Asbestos-Related Disease Among Electrical Power Generation Workers in Puerto Rico.” Presentation at American Public Health Association Annual Meeting, 2007.

Braidwood Nuclear Generating Station. Official site.
http://www.exeloncorp.com/ourcompanies/powergen/nuclear/braidwood/

“Madigan, Glasgow File Suit for Radioactive Leaks at Braidwood Nuclear Plant.” Illinois Attorney General's Office Press Release. 16 March 2006

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