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Data from the Millstone Power Station in Waterford, the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee plant in Haddam and four other nuclear plants would be used in a proposed pilot study of whether there should be a new and larger study of cancer risk near nuclear power plants.
The National Academy of Sciences recommended the pilot study in a report released last week as part of a project it is undertaking for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC, said the commission asked the academy to conduct a study because modeling tools and cancer incidence data available now are better than they were the last time such a study was done, in 1989.
That study determined that there is no link between cancer risk and proximity to nuclear power plants.
"The purpose is to answer the question, 'Is there an increased cancer risk and cancer mortality for people who live in the vicinity of nuclear power plants?'" he said. "We get these questions all the time from members of the public."
The academy's report is the first phase of the project for the NRC. It describes the ways such a study could be done, should the NRC decide to proceed. One method would look at cancer rates and cancer deaths in small areas within a 30-mile radius of a power plant.
Another approach would focus on the rates of cancers in children younger than 15 in relation to how close their mothers lived to a plant while they were pregnant. Both approaches also would focus on rates of leukemia, the cancer associated with radiation exposure in children, according to a news release from the academy.
The academy listed several challenges in conducting such a study, among them the quality of data available, information on cancer patients' exposures to toxic chemicals, sources of radiation other than nuclear plants, and other factors that could affect cancer rates and mortality. It also noted that radioactive releases from nuclear plants are expected to be low, so that "cancer risks, if any, are likely small."
"It is not certain whether a full-scale study would have sufficient statistical power to detect such small effects, if present," the academy said.
Given those factors, the academy said, it would be prudent to first conduct a pilot study before embarking on one that would look at the cancer impact of all the nation's 104 nuclear reactors and 13 fuel cycle facilities. Jennifer Walsh, spokeswoman for the academy, said the six facilities were chosen to achieve a range of plant designs and operating histories.
Millstone Power Station has two operating reactors and one decommissioned one. Connecticut Yankee, which closed in 1996, has one decommissioned plant.
Ken Holt, spokesman for Millstone owner Dominion, said the company had no comment on the recommendation at this time.
"It's so early in the process," he said.
Officials at Connecticut Yankee, owned by a consortium of companies including Northeast Utilities, could not be reached to comment Wednesday.
The Nuclear Energy Institute, an organization that represents the nuclear industry, criticized the proposal, making note of limitations the academy said such a study would encounter.
"The committee is recommending that significant resources be applied to a project that is looking for a needle in a haystack - when a needle may not even be there in the first place," Ralph Andersen, NEI's chief health physicist, said in an email message. "Based on our initial review of the report, it is not clear how the recommended study would produce scientifically defensible results that would serve to allay public concerns."
Sheehan said the data that would be used for the pilot study are routinely collected at Millstone and all nuclear plants as part of their operating license requirements. It includes water and aquatic life samples collected outside the Millstone property and meterological data from a weather tower at the plant.
The NRC, he said, is studying the academy report.
"We will carefully consider the recommendations before deciding on any next steps," he said, adding that if a study is undertaken, it will be a multi-year initiative.
The National Academy of Sciences will accept public comments on the report until May 30. The comments will be considered in designing the next phase of the study. The academy report can be found at:
Comments can be submitted via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org or by fax at: (202) 334-3077.