Resources for Patients and their Families

Desert Peak Power Plant

Although there has been renewed interest in geothermal energy in recent years, the history of geothermal power plants in the U.S. goes back over half a century. The Magma Power Company began exploratory drilling in the Desert Peak area about 25 miles east of Reno Nevada back in the 1950s. Over the next 20 years, the company had drilled 12 geothermal wells.

The Desert Peak Geothermal Power Plant is the result of these early efforts. The plant first went online in 1985, and was owned and operated by the Western States Geothermal Company. Today, the station is owned and operated by Ormat Technologies. Three units have a total generative capacity of just under 36 megawatts. This electricity is sold through the Nevada Power Company.

Asbestos is likely to have been used in the construction of older power plants, regardless of fuel source. Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were employed primarily because of their resistance to fire and heat; however, the “blue” crocidolite variety is also an excellent form of electrical insulation. This type of asbestos is also quite deadly; although all types of asbestos are known to play a part in the development of lung cancer, crocidolite and amosite (“brown” asbestos) are known to work much faster in causing the cellular mutations that result in cancers such as mesothelioma.

ACMs were common building materials in any event, but in power plants, they were found almost everywhere:

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

In moving machinery such as turbines, ACMs created a particular hazard by ejecting millions of asbestos fibers into the air, where they were not only inhaled and ingested, but settled in worker's hair and on their clothing as well. Tragically, they unknowingly brought these fibers into their homes, where secondary exposure to family members resulted. There are several documented cases in which wives and children developed mesothelioma as a result of such exposure.

In 2003, medical researchers in Puerto Rico examined chest x-rays from 1100 power plant workers. The results of the study, published in 2007, showed that there were indications of asbestos disease in 13% of the subjects. Power plants such as Bailey are regarded by industrial health experts as the most hazardous of industrial jobsites when it comes to asbestos.

Those who were employed at a power plant, particularly before the early 1980s, are well advised to discuss this with their family doctors and receive full physical exams whenever possible. Mesothelioma can have a latency period of as long as sixty years, by which time the disease is too far advanced for anything but palliative treatments. However, with early diagnosis, mesothelioma can be treated effectively, and recent advances in technology have made it much easier for pathologists to detect the “markers” of the disease at an early stage. At some stages mesothelioma chemotherapy is available from doctors such as Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston, MA. at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Through the 1970s, it was normal for plants, mills, and factories to utilize asbestos because of its insulating properties. Although asbestos' abilities as an insulator certainly protected people and property in the short term, the unintended consequences of using it were horrible: thousands of laborers suffered serious illness from asbestos exposure. The reason is that asbestos strands, if inhaled, can infiltrate internal organs and cause serious health conditions including pleural plaques and lung cancer. Also, a history of asbestos exposure can cause the extremely hard to treat form of cancer called mesothelioma, which affects the cells that line the chest cavity (pleural mesothelioma) or the stomach (peritoneal mesothelioma).

Those who work with asbestos in present times are generally safe from exposure due to the numerous laws controlling its use, inclusion in products and scrapping. In earlier days, however, workers often were expected to operate in areas in which asbestos dust was not filtered; in most cases, the dangers posed by asbestos inhalation were unknown. Spouses and children were also subjected to asbestos exposure if job sites failed to offer workplace-only uniforms, because workers inadvertently transported asbestos home with them in their work garments.

Because conditions like lung cancer and mesothelioma don't develop until 20 years or more after a person first is exposed to asbestos, those who worked at contaminated plants, as well as their spouses and children, are encouraged to discuss their history of exposure to asbestos with their medical care providers regardless of how far back they worked there.



Bowker, Michael. Fatal Deception: The Terrifying True Story of How Asbestos is Killing America. New York: Touchstone, 2003.

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.

Online Nevada Encyclopedia. “Desert Peak Geothermal Field.”

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