The Dresden Power Plant has the distinction of being the first nuclear power plant in the U.S. to have been financed through private investment. Located near Morris, Illinois, the plant's first reactor came online in 1960 and was shut down in 1978. Two other units have been in operation since 1970, and are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to continue in operation through 2030. Dresden's reactors have a combined generative capacity of 912 megawatts, sufficient to power one million average homes and small businesses in the Chicago metropolitan area. The facility is owned by the Exelon Corporation, which owns and operates other nuclear plants in the state.
As an older power generation facility, asbestos is likely to have been used in its construction. 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
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 Bailey, 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. Many doctors, such as Dr. David Sugarbaker at Harvard University's Brigham and Women’s Hospital, may be able to provide mesothelioma chemotherapy for patients.
Through the 1970s, it was usual for industrial sites of all types to use the naturally occurring, fibrous mineral known as asbestos because of its insulating properties. Although asbestos' abilities as an insulator undoubtedly saved lives, the unintended consequences of its use were devastating, and far too many workers suffered serious illness and even died because of asbestos exposure. The health conditions caused by asbestos exposure include pleural plaques and lung cancer; the biggest chance of developing these conditions occurs when asbestos-containing materials become fragile, releasing microfibers into the air where they are easy to inhale or ingest. Also, mesothelioma, which is a fast-growing and mostly untreatable cancer of the cells that line the chest cavity, is associated with mild to moderate inhalation of asbestos particles.
Now, we are aware of the dangers associated with asbestos exposure, and responsible employers ensure the well-being of those whose jobs put them in contact with this potentially lethal mineral. Even up to the last part of the 20th century, though, laborers often were told to toil in areas in which asbestos dust was unfiltered; in many cases, safety procedures were little understood. Spouses were also subjected to asbestos exposure if companies failed to offer ways for employees to wash off asbestos fibers, because employees carried asbestos dust home on their clothes or in their hair.
Diseases such as mesothelioma can take many years to appear, and the signs of these illnesses are often difficult to distinguish from those of other conditions; therefore, people who worked at these sites at any time in their job history, as well as their spouses and children, should speak with their physicians about their history of exposure to asbestos.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.
Energy Information Administration, U.S. Department of Energy (DOE). “Dresden Nuclear Power Plant, Illinois.” August 22, 2008.