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Zion Plant

Located halfway between Milwaukee, Wisconsin and Chicago, Illinois along the shore of Lake Michigan, the Zion Nuclear Power Station provided electricity to homes throughout the Chicago metro region and northern Illinois. It operated for nearly a quarter-century before it was shut down in 1997. The plant first came online in December 1973. In 1997, the second unit had been shut down for refueling; in February of that year, a control operator shut down Unit I in error, then attempted a restart, but failed to follow proper procedures.

Over the next twelve months, the Commonwealth Edison Corporation determined that the cost of necessary upgrades would exceed the benefits, and it was decided to retire the facility in 1998, even though the operating license was effective through November 2013.

Since then, all nuclear fuel has been removed and will continue to be stored on-site through the expiration of the original license. Decontamination and complete dismantling of the facility is estimated to continue until 2026.

Asbestos was first established as a health hazard in the late 1930s; however, this information did not become available to the general public until 1977, when in the course of asbestos litigation, discovery of papers in the corporate offices of asbestos-product manufacturer Raysbestos, Inc. revealed a four-decade conspiracy in the asbestos industry to suppress information about the health hazards of asbestos.

All power plants built prior to that time, whether fired by fossil fuels, nuclear power or hydro were constructed using extensive amounts of asbestos insulation. Asbestos is resistant to heat and flame as well as electrical current. Industrial health and safety experts have long known of the hazards of asbestos; this was confirmed by a Puerto Rican study in 2003, which revealed that 130 out of 1100 chest x-rays from such workers showed indications of asbestos disease.

Employees were not the only ones who were at risk from asbestos; they unwittingly brought asbestos into their homes in their clothing and hair, resulting in secondary exposure among family members.

Asbestos diseases usually have a lengthy latency period; symptoms may not be apparent until decades after initial exposure. Therefore, former employees as well as their families are advised to get frequent medical checkups if possible. New tests have enabled pathologists to detect the early markers that indicate the presence of a malignancy, and treatment of mesothelioma in its earliest stages means a much better prognosis.

Given its high resistance to transferring heat and electricity, asbestos could frequently be found in many industrial sites throughout the US. Although the use of asbestos was intended to reduce the risk of injury, it unfortunately often had the opposite effect. Asbestos exposure at the workplace has resulted in serious illness for thousands of laborers. The illnesses caused by asbestos exposure include pleural plaques and cancer of the lungs; the largest risk of developing these conditions occurs when products containing asbestos become friable, releasing microfibers into the environment where they are easy to inhale or ingest. The most deadly of the asbestos-linked diseases is mesothelioma, which is a cancer that affects the lining of the chest cavity; it is almost always a death sentence for those who contract it. Still, treatments such as mesothelioma chemotherapy are available and can be provided by medical professionals such as Dr. David Sugarbaker of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA.

Because numerous studies have shown the link between inhaling asbestos and diseases like asbestosis, 21st-century workers are protected by health and safety statutes that prescribe how asbestos is to be handled. In earlier days, however, laborers often were told to operate in areas in which air filled with asbestos dust was not filtered; in most cases, safety procedures were not explained. If workplaces didn't provide decontamination methods, workers took strands of asbestos home with them on their clothes or in their hair, thereby exposing spouses and children to this dangerous substance.

Because health conditions like lung cancer and mesothelioma often don't manifest until 20 years or more after asbestos exposure first occurs, men and women who had jobs at contaminated sites, as well as their spouses and children, should discuss their history of asbestos exposure with their doctors regardless of how far back they worked there.

Sources

Sources

Bowker, Michael. Deadly Deception (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

Zion Units 1 & 2, 2008-04-08,
http://www.nrc.gov/info-finder/decommissioning/power-reactor/zion-nuclear-power-station-units-1-2.html.

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