The nuclear plant at Hallam, Nebraska was an experimental facility that operated less than a year. Construction of the 75 megawatt facility began in 1958 and was completed in 1963. The plant came online in November of that year; it was shut down the following September once the Atomic Energy Commission (predecessor of today's NRC) had obtained the data it had been seeking.
After the plant was decommissioned, spare parts and equipment were used for other nuclear facilities. Spent fuel rods were buried onsite, where they have been monitored by the state Department of Health for the past five decades.
At the time the Hallam facility was built, the health hazards of asbestos were not widely known outside of medical research circles or the boardrooms of corporations that manufactured and marketed asbestos products. Those corporations went to great lengths to suppress such information between the late 1930s and 1977, when evidence of the conspiracy was brought to light during asbestos-related litigation.
Puerto Rican doctors carried out a study in 2003 that confirmed statements on the part of industrial health and safety experts, who had for many years said that power plants pose some of the highest risks of asbestos exposure of any industry. This study examined the chest x-rays of 1100 power plant workers. Over 1300 of these subjects were found to have “abnormalities” that indicated the early stages of asbestos disease.
Asbestos-containing materials (ACMs) were used as insulation throughout the construction of all types of industrial sites as well as power generating facilities through the early 1980s. ACMs were used in any location where heat, flame, electricity and corrosive chemicals posed a hazard. Over time, these materials began to deteriorate and give off asbestos dust. The fibers were inhaled and ingested by employees, they would also become lodged in hair and clothing. This is how asbestos fibers were introduced into the home, where family members were subjected to secondary exposure.
Mesothelioma is notoriously difficult to diagnose; symptoms are similar to those of many other respiratory diseases, and may not appear for decades following initial exposure to asbestos. For this reason, the disease is not normally diagnosed until its late stages, and prognosis is usually grim. Yet when detected early mesothelioma chemotherapy is a useful treatment from doctors like Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston, MA. at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Anyone who worked at the Hallam Nuclear Plant between 1958 and 1964 as well as their family members should inform their primary care physicians about any possible asbestos exposure. New methods are now available that allow pathologists to detect the markers of mesothelioma in its earliest stages when it is most treatable.
This location was one of countless factories, mills, power plants and worksites that, during much of the 1900s, utilized the naturally occurring mineral known as asbestos for its ability to withstand flame. Although asbestos' strength as an insulator certainly saved lives, the unintended results of using it were tragic, and untold numbers of men and women contracted serious illness because of inhalation of or other contact with asbestos. The health conditions associated with exposure to asbestos include asbestosis and cancer of the lungs; the largest chance of developing these conditions happens when materials containing asbestos become friable, releasing particles into the air where they are easy to inhale or ingest. The most serious of the asbestos-related diseases is mesothelioma, a type of cancer that involves the mesothelium, the tissue that lines the abdominal cavity; it is a disease that usually kills within two years of diagnosis.
People whose job sites contain asbestos in present times are generally protected from contact due to the extensive body of rules regulating its use, presence at job sites and scrapping. Even up to the late 1900s, though, laborers often were expected to toil in areas in which asbestos dust was not filtered; in many cases, safety procedures were little understood. If employers did not offer showers and decontamination methods, employees carried asbestos to their homes in their work garments, which exposed spouses and children to this dangerous substance.
Those who worked here in the past, as well as their partners and children, are advised to find out about these health conditions and inform their family doctors about their history of asbestos exposure, because the symptoms of mesothelioma and other asbestos-related illnesses can be difficult to distinguish from those of less serious conditions.Sources
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.