NRC cancels study of cancer risk in communities near nuclear power plants

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced Tuesday that it is stopping a study of cancer risk in populations that live near nuclear power plants, citing the estimated $8 million cost, the 8- to 10-year timeline for completion of the project and expected limited value of any conclusions that could be reached.

The NRC announced in 2012 that it had commissioned the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a pilot study of cancer risk around seven of the nation’s more than 100 operating and decommissioned reactors.

Among the seven were the Millstone Power Station in Waterford and the site of the former Connecticut Yankee plant in Haddam.

The agency said the study was designed to answer lingering questions among the public about whether there is increased incidence of cancer among those who live near nuclear power plants, and to update a 1990 study that looked for a link between cancer mortality and proximity to nuclear reactors.

That study found no correlation.

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said the agency spent $1.5 million on preliminary phases of the study, which included analysis of the feasibility of the study, planning for the types of data that would be needed and how they would be collected.

“The NRC has found previously that the off-site dose to the highest exposed member of the public living near a U.S. nuclear power plant is generally less than 1 percent of the amount of radiation the average citizen receives in a year from all background and medical sources,” Sheehan said in an email message.

In response to the announcement, Ken Holt, spokesman for Millstone, said plant owner Dominion had no objection to the study. 

"We were ready to support the study," he said.

Lauren Rugani, spokeswoman for the National Academy of Sciences, said that in the planning report submitted to the NRC in December, it cautioned that the study would have significant limitations.

The limitations included the small sample size and difficulty of obtaining data on rain, wind and other weather conditions that can affect radiation exposure, any unique characteristics in communities that may contribute to cancer risk and other factors beyond power plant radiation levels that can influence a person’s level of cancer risk.

“It’s not just a matter of, 'Is there cancer nearby?'” she said. “There’s a lot to wade through. Some of the data is readily available, and some is not.”

The National Academy, she said, accepts projects from other federal agencies but does not make recommendations on how or whether they should proceed.

“But we stand ready to respond to future requests,” she said.

The nonprofit group Beyond Nuclear called the NRC’s decision “outrageous.”

The Maryland-based group describes itself as the leading nongovernmental organization concerned with the health, safety and environmental dangers of nuclear-power facilities.

“Study after study in Europe has shown a clear rise in childhood leukemia around operating nuclear power facilities, yet the NRC has decided to hide this vital information from the American public,” Cindy Folkers, radiation and health specialist at Beyond Nuclear, said in a news release.

The release referenced a study last year by British radiation biologist Ian Fairlie showing a 37 percent increase in childhood leukemias within 5 miles of nuclear plants in Great Britain, Germany, France and Switzerland.

She called the $8 million cost of the study “a drop in the bucket for an agency with a $1 billion operating budget."

Beyond Nuclear accused the NRC of bowing to industry influence in canceling the study.

In an Aug. 21 report on the pilot study, however, Mark Satorius, executive director for operations at the National Academy of Sciences, cited different studies about cancer risk.

He noted that while the public has longstanding concerns about radiation from nuclear power plants, epidemiological studies in Canada and five European countries since 2008 have shown “no association between facility operations and increased cancer risks to the public that are attributable to the releases or radiation exposure.”

At the Nuclear Energy Institute, the trade organization for the industry, spokesman Steve Kerekes said the NRC made "a prudent decision based on where the science is."

Compared to natural levels of radiation and the amounts people are exposed in medical procedures, he said, nuclear power plants release a relatively small amount of radiation into the environment.

"We put a lot of money and resources into protecting the health and safety of the men and women who work at our facilities and the general public around them," he said.

Despite canceling the study, Sheehan said, the NRC will “continue to monitor all relevant health studies."

He said the NRC also considered the lower-cost option of updating the 1990 study, done by the National Cancer Institute, but also concluded that its value would be limited.

“But if warranted,” he said, “we can revisit this.”

j.benson@theday.com

Twitter: @BensonJudy

Editor's Note: This article has been edited to correct a mistake in a quote by Steve Kerekes.

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