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NRC/NAS Cancer study--phase 2

Nuclear Monitor Issue: 

In October 2012, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission directed the National Academy of Sciences to implement the first large-scale study of health impacts in U.S. communities near nuclear facilities since 1980.

Communities near selected nuclear facilities licensed by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (six reactors and one nuclear fuel factory) have been designated as part of a pilot study of cancer: San Onofre, in CA; Mill-stone and Haddam Neck in CT; Dresden in IL; Oyster Creek in NJ; Big Rock Point in MI and Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, TN. Big Rock Point and Haddam Neck are both permanently closed.

This study is billed as an "update" of a 1990 National Cancer Institute effort to look at cancer deaths reported in the U.S. counties where nuclear reactors are located. This work was deeply flawed in its design and construction, was conducted twenty years earlier in the period of release of radioactivity from the reactors and did not include any local data, only published information that was very incomplete. In a refreshing break from business-as-usual, several years ago Representative Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and numerous concerned citizens (many of whom have suffered health consequences while living near reactors) managed to jettison NRC's original plan in which it would have conducted this study itself--the basic equivalent of a primary school child filling in their own reportcard. It is NRC's regulations (enforced or not) and NRC's licensing of these facilities that create the question of whether atomic fission and routine and non-routine releases of radioactivity have increased cancer in these communities. 

While many U.S. activists groaned when Rep. Markey suggested the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to conduct the study, the NRC accepted  the idea, since it would still allow a supervisory role for the Commission. Those who rejected the idea of the Academy cite its typical bias toward industry; they advocated for NRC to make a grant to an institution like the National Institute for Environmental Health where it would be administered with complete independence to fund proposals from qualified researchers competing in an open forum with peer review.

Nonetheless, many observers and citizen advocates who have been personally impacted are heartened by aspects of the recommendations that the NAS made in what is known as "Phase 1" of the cancer study. Of particular note is that two different studies will be performed in each pilot community and one of these will be "case-controlled" and focus specifically on pediatric cancer. 

"This is a break-through moment for the NAS and NRC" said Mary Olson, Director of the Southeast Office of Nuclear Information and Resource Service, "Case-control is what distinguishes a detailed study from broad correlations or associations based on published data, like health department tallies, which provide no real basis to assert causality; case-control means that details about each individual are gathered, providing  a finer grain or higher resolution in the data. If there are health impacts in these communities, and the study is done well, this type of study can deliver a statistically significant causation. The choice to focus the case-control work on children is also stunning since children are far more susceptible to radiation exposure than adults. The pitfall always comes when the numbers studied are too small."

Strange Bedfellows Sometimes Agree
The potential for this work to deliver non-information remains great, and this view is shared by both the nuclear industry's advocacy arm, Nuclear Energy Institute, and one of the very few active epidemiologists to look at nuclear communities in the U.S., Dr. Steve Wing. In 2010 the NEI Blog stated: "Studies of...occupationally and environmentally exposed populations...are useful in ad-dressing allegations of adverse health effects in the population and in demonstrating a concern for the health of the exposed people. However, unless they are sufficiently powerful, they do not add to the scientific knowledge of low dose effects."

From his very different perspective, Steve Wing has contributed to this issue a side bar "Perils and Promises of Studying Health Impacts of Low-Level Radiation" (see page 12) which expresses much the same view.

People are prone to drawing comparisons between radiation and tobacco. If there had been a twenty year lapse in studies of the impact of tobacco AFTER it was already publicly known that tobacco is damaging to health, how would people have reported on that? We cannot with any sense of conscience oppose any study of this issue- but we certainly expect vigilance on the part of this community to ensure that if it is shown to be poorly conducted, or worse-yet, designed to fail, it becomes an inexcusable tarnish on all associated with it.

A step that NAS could and should take to ensure that a real peer review of its work is possible would be to publish both the details of the study protocols, and also the raw data used in their work. Today web publication makes this an easily viable option. Only this level of disclosure will allow a real assessment of the integrity and value of the study. 

The view from the nuclear study sites:
The Nuclear Monitor reached out to people in the impacted communities, and the overwhelming response was essentially "it is too soon to know what to think of this." There is a guarded optimism and hope summed up by Gene Stone of ROSE (Residents Organized for a Safe Environment) near San Onofre on the Pacific coast between Los Angeles and San Diego California: "We worked really hard to bring our health concerns forward and to get the attention that has led to this study -and are also very concerned that it be done right. We want to see independent over-sight of the NAS team- so that every single procedure and decision down to the finest points is subject to peer review. We are really excited about this study, if it is done credibly." 

This view was echoed by people near Dresden (IL), Nuclear Fuel Services (TN) and Big Rock Point (MI) and Oyster Creek (NJ). 

Let us hope that the NAS has the honor and the decency to work for these communities, rather than the source of the money for the study: the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission which licenses each and every one of these sites...and dozens more in the U.S.

"CAN believes that the study 
of communities leaving in the contamination pathway of nuclear reactors is vital. However we are concerned that any finding will be used to justify the continued operation of this generation of nukes. Studies have already occur-red in Germany as well as in this country that have demonstrated an increase in cancer and other diseases. It could be more pro-ductive to study the similarities in the diseases found in communities living in proximity to nukes such as cancer, birth defects, miscarri-age, Down syndrome and learning disabilities." 

--Deb Katz, executive director Citizens Awareness Network.

Thumbnail Portraits of the Facilities
San Onofre,
Southern California Edison. Originally three PWR reactor units, Unit 1 opened in 1967 about 15 years ahead of the other two, and in 1992 was closed permanently. Units 2 and 3 are currently down due to dramatically quick failure of replacement steam generators due to a design flaw that led to vibrations that cause systematic thinning of the tube walls which leads to increased chance of rupture and catastrophic radiation release. San Onofre is located in a densely populated area -- 8.4 million people live inside a 50 mile radius of the site, and a 100 mile radius includes 18 million people. More info on the steam generator problems of San Onofre can be found at

Dresden, Exelon Corp. Like San Onofre, Dresden was three reactor units, and Unit 1, one of the first in the U.S.A (1959) is now closed. All three units are BWRs (the two remaining are GE Mark I’s) that came on-line in the early 1970's. Located in Morris IL, the Dresden site has a population of 67,000 within a 10 mile radius and is 60 miles from "The Loop" of downtown Chicago. Dresden, like many of the selected sites has a history of contaminated ground water, likely from failure of underground pipes on the reactor site.

Big Rock Point, a GE BWR reactor owned by Consumers Energy (formerly Consumers Power) is another old, small reactor (75 MWe) that came on-line in 1964 and closed in 1997. Big Rock was experimental, and it was also used to test experimental nuclear fuels, many of which ruptured during use resulting in astronomically high radiation releases to air, water and solid waste. There is circumstantial evidence that open incine-ration took place on the site, including of "low-level" radioactive waste, which in addition to spills, leaks, and floods have made this section of Lake Michi-gan shore line (the "fourth finger" is the peninsula on which the site is located, west of Traverse City in Charlevoix) a very contaminated place. 

Haddam Neck (Connecticut Yankee) operated from 1976 to 1994 and was a single unit 582 MW PWR. It was operated by Yankee Atomic and closed for economic reasons stemming in part from safety concerns. The site has groundwater contamination and Haddam/Meriden CT is an area with diffuse but significant population. 

Millstone.  Another site that has three reactor units, the oldest shut and two remaining in operation. Millstone, owned by Dominion Generation, is on the Long Island Sound in Connecticut. Unit 1 is a BWR (GE) that operated from 1970--1998, Units 2 and 3 are PWRs. Both are plagued by leaks, many repairs, a lax safety culture and near-misses. Inside the 10 mile radius there are 140,000 people.

Oyster Creek, owned by Illinois-based Exelon Corporation, is a Fukushima –clone (GE Mark 1 BWR) sitting for the past 43 years on a New Jersey bay where the 6.5 foot surge of SuperStorm Sandy exceeded the level of the cooling water intake pumps. As luck would have it the reactor was down for refueling, however another 6 inches would have forced a Fukushima-style use of a firehose to keep the fuel pool coolant full and moving. This dinosaur is plagued with many safety issues inspiring a constant shut-down battle from local folks for the past 20 years. Instead, NRC approved a license extension which has been renegotiated to 2019; 140,000 people live within 10 miles.

Nuclear Fuel Services, Erwin, TN. Unlike the others, NFS is a fuel factory- -compounded in the last decade by the addition of a "low-level" radioactive waste heat treatment facility that cooks the hottest of this type of waste: filters and resins from the primary coolant loop of reactors. This site is tucked into a "holler" off a valley in the Appalachian Mountains where "company town" is an understatement. NFS has only recently returned to making commercial reactor fuel, having primarily supplied plutonium fuel for the propulsion reactors of the U.S. Nuclear Navy. The intimacy of the position of this industrial site with the small town it is planted in is, one hopes, rare. Backyards and jungle gyms abut the site, the local elementary school is a block away, and the river into which some wastes have been "straight piped" for decades has tested positive for highly enriched uranium and plutonium as far as 90 miles downstream.

San Onofre 1San Onofre 2San Onofre 3Dresden 2Dresden 1Dresden 3Big Rock PointConnecticut YankeeMillstone 2Millstone 3Millstone 1Oyster Creek