National Academy of Sciences may study risk around reactors

Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford.
Millstone Nuclear Power Station in Waterford.

A federal regulator is asking the National Academy of Sciences to take over a study on cancer risk around nuclear reactors in place of a previously hired government contractor.

The study would assess areas around the country's 104 reactors sited at 65 different complexes, including those at Millstone Power Station in Waterford. It would also include areas around decommissioned or decommissioning plants, as well as proposed sites for new plants, in order to establish a baseline cancer rate for those areas, said David McIntyre, an NRC spokesman.

The NAS' Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board has invited the NRC to discuss the request at the board's public meeting on April 26. The two agencies will work out administrative details through the spring so that the study can begin this summer, the NRC said.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission had developed a contract in late 2008 with the Oak Ridge Associated University in Tennessee to compile a new study examining cancer risk in counties that host nuclear power plants, said. Nuclear watchdogs criticized the contract, saying it had not been put out to bid.

"We're not saying there was anything wrong with their work, but we wanted to make sure other commercial research organizations were aware of their work and had the chance to compete," McIntyre said.

The NRC chose NAS because "they're independent, they have a great reputation and they would give an honest and unvarnished look at the subject," he added.

The NAS is a non-governmental organization chartered by the U.S. Congress to advise the nation on issues of science, technology, and medicine. Through the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, it carries out studies independently of the government using processes designed to promote transparency, objectivity, and technical rigor.

Oak Ridge is affiliated with the U.S. Department of Energy, which promotes nuclear power, so the potential for conflict of interest abounds, said Ed Lyman, a senior staff scientist specializing in nuclear energy safety and security with the Cambridge-based Union of Concerned Scientists, an environmental and nuclear watchdog.

"That's definitely a positive development," Lyman said, "because we don't think the Department of Energy and its associated laboratories are ... independent. It's just not the right venue for that kind of a study, if (the NRC) wants to have confidence in the outcome. Not every study the NAS produces is completely without bias either, but it's an improvement."

The "state-of-the-art study will also depart from a 1990 study by the U.S. National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute by focusing on smaller regions than counties, McIntyre said.

"Part of the criticism some people voiced on the 1990 study, which was based on counties, was that it could miss certain trends that don't necessarily get to a countywide level," he said. "And now there are different databases to look at, so we can explore going below the county level with this study."

NRC is paying for the study, he added.

The NCI report showed no increased risk of death from cancer for people living in the 107 counties containing or adjacent to nuclear power reactors operational before 1982.

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