NRC weighs new study of cancer risks near nuclear plants

Federal researchers with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Thursday that a proposed study of cancer risks around nuclear facilities could improve the public's trust in existing evidence that radiation doses emitted from those plants aren't harmful.

The study's senior project manager, Terry Brock, told a committee of 19 independent experts organized through the National Academy of Sciences that the rationale for undertaking such a study would be to obtain credible, and updated, information for the public about possible cancer risks from nuclear plants. The last study on the issue was done in 1990.

Millstone Power Station in Waterford is one of 104 nuclear facilities across the country that would be included if the experts from the NRC and the national academy decide to go forward with a comprehensive study.

By partnering with the academy, the NRC would update a 1990 study by the National Cancer Institute that found no increased risk of death from cancer for those living in the 107 counties either containing or located near nuclear power reactors that were operating before 1982.

The 1990 U.S. study on possible cancer risks from nuclear plants was undertaken after a study in the United Kingdom found "significant excess" of childhood leukemia around certain nuclear facilities there.

Dr. Brian Sheron, director of the NRC's Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, said the goal of the study would be to provide public assurance. "Right now, we believe our regulations are perfectly adequate. We're trying to be responsible to public concern to confirm that the 1990 study is still valid," he said, by using the best techniques and methods available today.

Low levels of radiation are emitted in the environment around, as well as within, facilities that use enriched uranium to power the nation's nuclear reactors. Those plants generate 20 percent of the country's electricity.

The NRC maintains that existing studies show those doses are not harmful to humans and represent a tiny fraction of the doses occurring naturally in the environment.

The committee still needs to determine if such a broad-based study is feasible as well as how such a study would be carried out. Thursday's public meeting at the Melrose Hotel in Washington, D.C., was the committee's first gathering and was webcast and broadcast to news outlets.

Some of the improvements the NRC would seek in a new study include narrowing the scope from counties around nuclear facilities to a smaller geographic area. A new study also could deal with both cancer mortalities as well as incidences of illness, such as how many people contracted cancer, Sheron said. The new study would include nuclear facilities in operation after 1982, he said.

Brock, the study's senior manager, said the NRC wants to have an "upfront discussion" about offsite doses of radiation coming from nuclear facilities. "We think it's important to have a clear discussion about what the actual doses are," he said, including how they are differentiated from naturally occurring radiation.

The NRC already requires nuclear facilities to monitor for exposure to radiation and to design nuclear reactors for dose limits that are "as low as reasonably achievable," also known as ALARA.

Two years ago, the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements revised its dose of 360 millirems per year as the amount most Americans receive to 620 millirems, with the increase coming from exposure to medical tests such as body scans, according to NRC officials.

The national council is a nongovernmental organization chartered by Congress to advise the nation on issues related to science, technology and medicine.


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