Nuclear Harm Reduction

As Georgia WAND shifts to being fully led by communities directly affected by the nuclear weapons and nuclear energy industries, the way we think about and approach our work also changes. Inspired and informed by frontline leaders, Georgia WAND is advancing a new model, nuclear harm reduction, the mitigation, reduction, or reversal of nuclear and environmental harms in Georgia communities. Local residents are employed by the same toxin-producing industries that contribute to the radiological contamination of the environment where they live. Community residents share dual concerns about high cancer rates in the area and the reliance of the community on well-paying jobs at the plants. Harm reduction is a frame that centers the community’s  perspective and serves as a more inclusive method to hold the nuclear industries accountable, increase survivorship of local communities, and advance long term economic sustainability and environmental equity, which includes access to well-paying green jobs, sustainable local economic development, and high quality water, air, and land. 

People in Burke County, Georgia and the surrounding areas live downwind and downstream from multiple environmental impacts: the Savannah River Site (SRS), a nuclear weapons complex where tritium is currently manufactured for the U.S. nuclear arsenal and radioactive waste from decades of nuclear weapons production is stored; nuclear power Plant Vogtle, which is currently expanding from two to four operating commercial nuclear reactors; and upstream industries like paper mills, polymer plants, and more.  

In 2002, the last year that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Environmental Protection Division received funding from the Department of Energy to conduct independent radiological environmental monitoring across the state, results from Burke County revealed elevated levels of tritium, cesium 137, strontium-90, plutonium, cobalt 60, and iodine 129.  

It must be noted that in addition to the large amount of radionuclides coming from SRS, which make up the bulk of local contamination, all nuclear reactors have routine tritium emissions – including Plant Vogtle. In addition to its own radiological releases, Vogtle takes in 62-75 million gallons of water each day from the Savannah River, the body of water that separates SRS from Vogtle and is one of the surface water conduits moving contamination from the nuclear sites to the public spaces. Some of the water used to cool the reactor is returned to the Savannah River in a thermonuclear, or very hot, state. The rest of the water taken in from the river goes out the cooling towers in the form of steam. There is no monitoring at the intake valves nor is their monitoring at the opening of the cooling towers; Georgia WAND is concerned that the steam, which is also thermonuclear, is toxic since it gets pulled from a toxic river, and that the contaminated steam is then showered over the community 24 hours a day, seven days a week.  

Shell Bluff is the eastern hamlet of Burke County, and is in the footprint of the highest levels of air, rain, groundwater, and surface water radiological contamination. But the contamination is not limited to Shell Bluff. With a population of roughly 23,000, Burke County is a tight-knit community dotted with churches about every 5 miles. There are strong community ties and long-standing generational knowledge and culture. During the post-enslavement period, people built a thriving community-based economy, where Black families owned large tracts of land. In a self-sustaining agrarian community, people have farmed the land and fished the river. However, concentrations of tritium have been found in fish, especially in largemouth bass from Upper Three Runs Creek, which feeds into the Savannah River just above Plant Vogtle’s intake valves. There are no fish advisories posted in the middle Savannah River, which is the third most toxic section of river in the country. Because the site was unregulated for 40 years, radioactive waste was dumped directly into the creeks, such as Upper Three Runs and Fourmile Branch, that feed into the Savannah River. The river, a food source for generations prior to its contamination by toxic industry, SRS, and Plant Vogtle, is frequently used by local families who fish for sustenance.  

Georgia WAND’s work honors those who came before us and members of frontline communities who didn’t survive. We center those who remain and flank their struggle to thrive. To be of service to this community, Georgia WAND worked with local community leaders to create alternative ideology and approaches to address their multiple struggles, and the concept of mitigation, reduction, or reversal of nuclear and environmental harms was birthed. It’s about moving from surviving to thriving, creating viable land use and local economies for the generations to come.  

Nuclear harm reduction approaches are community-centered, and building community power politically, economically, and culturally are key to ensuring that local communities are able to hold nuclear facilities accountable. Some harm reduction strategies include the following: 

  • Transparency about National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA)’s activities at SRS; 
  • Industry identifying and sharing with the public when and where radiological releases are high from site activities;  
  • Increased investment in remediation;  
  • Fully funded remediation;  
  • Robust radiological environmental monitoring based on citizen experience;  
  • Establishing public health data about the relationship between the high rate of local cancer rates and regular, long-time human exposure to low levels of ionizing radiation;  
  • Awareness about what the industries do and how siting decisions were and are made;  
  • No new nuclear production of any kind, such as increased tritium manufacturing, plutonium pit production, MOX – mixed oxide fuel fabrication, and other potential missions at SRS;  
  • No new radiological environmental emissions; no new waste storage contracts from U.S. commercial reactors or foreign countries; accelerated decommissioning;  
  • Industry commitment to equitable, funded, and sustained community relations; 
  • Frontline community leadership on the SRS Citizens Advisory board, in elected office, civic engagement and citizen lobbying, and other avenues of accountability;  
  • Funding to get all residential houses up to current safety and building standards for sheltering in place and energy efficiency; moving county residents onto municipal water supplies;  
  • Paving roads and getting emergency preparedness up to national standards;  
  • Increased public funding so that the healthcare and education systems are up to at least national standards;  
  • Constructing a community center so people can come together across religious, cultural, gender, and location differences – especially given the micro rural/urban gap between the county seat of Waynesboro and “the country” areas which includes Shell Bluff and the communities in the immediate footprint of SRS and Vogtle’s environmental contamination;  
  • Sustainable economic development in Burke County, including sustainable farming, green entrepreneurship, attracting businesses that don’t harm the environment, and jobs & job training; renewable energy;  
  • Greater access to the 100% renewable cities movement; funding for economic development and equity;  

And much more…