The recent analysis of electricity in Southern New Jersey ("Power On, Off," published Oct. 23) highlights a crucial public issue.

What will be our future sources of electricity? What will it cost? Most importantly, are there health and safety concerns?

From the early years, when oil was the major source of electricity, to coal, and now natural gas, greenhouse gas emitters have dominated the market. These have all helped change climate and increase extreme weather; oil, coal, and natural gas must be replaced by truly safe sources that last forever, like wind, solar, hydroelectric, and geothermal power.

Then there is nuclear power. The early promise that it would be the dominant energy source of the future failed badly, as reactors turned out to be neither cheap nor clean. Initial interest in building nuclear plants ended by the 1980s, after huge cost overruns. Nuclear provides 19% of the country's electricity; nine of 104 reactors have shut since 2013, with more to come.

Proponents of nuclear power state that reactors are "zero-emission" sources - a dangerous deception. Reactors routinely generate some greenhouse gas (radioactive carbon, for example). Preparing uranium for reactors - mining, milling, enrichment, fabrication, and purification - produces lots of greenhouse gas.

“Zero emissions” is a deceptive way to describe reactors that have melted down and added huge amounts of radioactivity to the environment at places like Chernobyl, Fukushima, and Three Mile Island. Even without a meltdown, reactors generate and emit a toxic mix of over 100 chemicals created in reactors and nuclear weapons explosions. Yes, the mushroom clouds from long-ago atomic bomb explosions carried a huge amount of radioactivity into the air – the same mix of chemicals made by nuclear plants.

Most radioactivity is stored at nuclear plants - and will not fully decay for thousands of years (making leakage or a meltdown almost inevitable). Some of the radioactivity is routinely released into local air and water. Once in the environment, these poisons enter the human body through breathing and the food chain - the same process that occurred after atomic bomb tests years ago. 

In New Jersey, only one nuclear plant is operating, in Salem County. Its three reactors started in 1976, 1980, and 1986. The plant already has accumulated more waste than released by the Chernobyl meltdown. As the U.S. has no plan for a permanent storage site, Salem County faces the daunting task of keeping the waste from escaping.

Salem's plant also may well be one of the largest emitters of environmental radiation in the country. In 2007 and 2009, it released more tritium into the local air and water than most U.S. plants (tritium is one of the 100-plus radioactive chemicals produced by reactors).

In April, an article in the Journal of Environmental Protection showed that for decades, the Salem County cancer death rate held steady at just below the state rate, but since the mid-1980s, just after the reactors began operating, the county rate steadily rose. Salem now has the highest cancer death rate of any New Jersey county, 33% above the state. Exposure to reactor emissions must be considered as one cause.

A 2018 state law to reduce greenhouse gases will allow electric companies who produce "zero emissions" to raise electric bills by $900 million over the next three years. This money was supposed to go to truly emission-free sources, like wind and solar, who could use help in growing faster. Salem is a polluter, that doesn’t need the money; estimated annual profits from the Salem reactors are $338 to $477 million.

However, the nuclear industry somehow convinced the Legislature that nuclear power is a "zero-emission" source, and the operators of the Salem plant will be receiving almost all $900 million, with wind and solar producers getting virtually nothing. The law is currently being appealed by a state consumer group.

For decades, greenhouse gases and radiation emitted into our environment and bodies caused climate change and raised cancer risk. Wind and solar power companies deserve support, not nuclear plants. The time has come to change the energy mix in New Jersey and make it safer for future generations.

ED. NOTE: Mangano is executive director of Radiation and Public Health Project, a nonprofit educational and scientific organization, established by scientists and physicians dedicated to understanding the relationships between low-level, nuclear radiation and public health, according to its website. Fenichel is a member of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which mobilizes physicians and health professionals to advocate for climate solutions and a nuclear weapons-free world, according to its website. Both are from Ocean City.