The Idaho Power Company recently submitted a plan to state utility commissioners, a proposed blueprint for how energy would be generated for the state’s growing population. Over the next 20 years, new energy sources would be created – including a new nuclear power plant. This would be the first such plant in Idaho – but not the state’s first encounter with nuclear power.

- The Idaho National Laboratory just west of Idaho Falls, ran for over four decades. A large amount of highly radioactive waste exists at the site, and cleanup by the U.S. Energy Department is underway.

- The Hanford site in southeastern Washington is just over 100 miles west (upwind) of northern Idaho. Hanford released enormous amounts of radioactivity into the air, especially in the early years of the Cold War.

- Fallout from Nevada atomic bomb tests drifted over the nation, and precipitation brought it into the food chain. The National Cancer Institute found that of the five U.S. counties with the highest exposures, four were in Idaho (Blaine, Custer, Gem, Lemhi).

Nuclear power reactors create electricity, not bombs. But in doing so, they produce the same cocktail of radioactive chemicals found in nuclear weapons. Much of it is stored as waste – making nuclear plants an inviting target for terrorists. But some of it is released into the air and water, and enters human bodies through breathing, eating, and drinking. These chemicals include Cesium-137, which disperses in soft tissues; Iodine-131, which attacks the thyroid gland; and Strontium-90, which seeks out bone. Each of these chemicals damages cells, and is especially harmful to infants and children.

Idaho has traditionally been a state with low cancer rates. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention web site ranks it 31st of 39 states in cancer incidence for 2001-02, the most recent years available. The cancer death rate is the lowest in the nation, except for Hawaii, New Mexico, and Utah.

But Idaho’s incidence rate for certain radiation-sensitive cancers is high. Out of 39 states listed on the CDC web site for 2001-02, Idaho ranks 2nd in childhood cancer (age 0-19), 8th in thyroid cancer, 5th in leukemia, 6th in multiple myeloma, 4th in Hodgkin’s disease, 2nd in brain/nervous system cancer, and 10th in non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma

Thyroid cancer is especially sensitive to radioactive iodine. Bone-seekers such as strontium enter the bone marrow, where they can cause cancers of the blood forming organs such as leukemia, myeloma, Hodgkin’s disease, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. While these diseases are much less common than lung, breast, colon, or prostate cancer, they still are diagnosed in over 800 Idaho residents each year – a number that is growing.

Determining whether past radiation exposures have caused these cancers requires more detailed studies. Until this link is better understood, it would be prudent not to introduce nuclear reactors to Idaho quite yet – especially since non-polluting sources of electricity such as solar and wind power are available. Thus, Idaho citizens (who have until January 22 to make comments to the state Public Utilities Commission) should take the nuclear cancer threat seriously, and ask the Commission to consider public health before endorsing more nuclear power.

Joseph Mangano MPH MBA is National Coordinator of the Radiation and Public Health Project, a research organization based in New York.


Cancer statistics from, National Program of Cancer Registries. For example, states with highest and lowest rates of all cancers age 0-19, 2001-2002, adjusted to the 2000 U.S. standard population, are (rates and number of cases)

Vermont21.02(69)North Dakota10.43(18)
Maine19.19(127)N. Carolina13.62(616)
Rhode Island18.27(99)Louisiana14.18(382)
Minnesota18.17(515)S. Carolina14.25(323)

U.S. total is 16.36 (22,868). Does not include CT, HI, IA, KS, MD, MS, NM, SD, TN, UT, VA, WY, or any territories. Other cancers may be selected using web site.