The Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant is located in Red Wing, Minnesota along the Mississippi River, next to the Prairie Island Indian Community reservation. With two Westinghouse reactors having a total generative capacity of over 1.07 gigawatts, the facility is licensed to operate through 2014. The plant is owned and operated by Northern States Power Company, a subsidiary of Xcel Energy.
One of the greatest hazards at Prairie Island lies in the fact that spent fuel rods are stored onsite inside of steel casks. The site is on a floodplain on the Mississippi. Now that the Yucca Mountain Waste Disposal Site is no longer available, the company is being allowed to store additional nuclear waste on the site but must now make more use of wind and solar power in addition to paying $2.25 million a year to the neighboring Prairie Island Indian Nation for improvements related to public safety.
Repair workers in 2006 received low doses of radioactive iodine gas when steam generators developed a leak during inspections. Although this was determined to be too low for there to have been any health risk, there is a possibility that such radiation exposure may serve to exacerbate the asbestos hazard that has existed at one time or another at all power generation plants.
All power plants built prior to around 1980, whether fired by fossil fuels, nuclear power or hydro contained large amounts of asbestos insulation. Asbestos is resistant to heat and flame as well as electrical current. Arguably, asbestos-containing materials have saved lives and prevented billions of dollars in property loss over the decades. However, those who contracted asbestos diseases have paid dearly.
Asbestos illness was established as a work-related hazard for power plant workers in 2003, when Puerto Rican medical researchers found that 130 out of 1100 chest x-rays from such workers showed indications of asbestos disease.
Generators, boilers and turbine combustion engines as well as thermal control devices have all been insulated with asbestos-containing materials when the health hazards of asbestos were not generally known to the public at large. Those facts finally came to light in the late 1970s, when during asbestos litigation, papers were discovered in the corporate office of Raysbestos, Inc. proving the existence of a cover-up going back four decades.
Since then, the EPA and OSHA have issued strict regulations governing worker safety and other asbestos issues. Asbestos diseases nonetheless have very long latency periods; symptoms often are not apparent until such diseases have reached advanced stages.
Fortunately, new diagnostic methods have been developed, allowing pathologists to detect early signs of asbestos disease. Former power plant workers should discuss asbestos exposure with their primary care physicians and receive regular checkups if possible. When caught early, mesothelioma chemotherapy is available to patients from doctors like Dr. David Sugarbaker in Boston, MA. at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Up until the 1980s, it was extremely common for many industrial facilities to utilize asbestos because it offered high resistance to transferring heat and electricity. While using asbestos was intended in many cases to reduce the risk of injury, it unfortunately ended up with the opposite effect: exposure to asbestos associated with work has resulted in serious illness for untold numbers laborers. The reason is that asbestos strands, if inhaled or ingested, damage internal organs, leading to life-threatening illnesses such as pleural plaques and cancer of the lungs. In addition, mesothelioma, the fast-growing and mostly untreatable cancer of the cells that line the chest cavity, is linked with mild to moderate inhalation of asbestos particles.
Today, regulators understand the risks of asbestos exposure, and laws protect employees whose jobs put them in contact with this dangerous substance. Those who labored around job sites constructed with asbestos prior to the implementation of such laws, however, commonly spent their days in sites where asbestos fibers were prevalent, and they typically received very little guidance about safe ways to handle the mineral. If workplaces failed to offer showers, workers inadvertently transported particles of asbestos home in their clothes and hair, thereby exposing family members to this dangerous substance.
Those who worked at this site during their career, as well as family members of such workers, are encouraged to find out about these health conditions and inform their healthcare professionals about their history of exposure to asbestos, because the signs of asbestos-related diseases like mesothelioma can be mistaken for 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.
U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission. “"Prairie Island Nuclear Generating Plant, Units 1 and 2 - License Renewal Application.”