The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has abruptly ended a study1 that it had commissioned from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) that was purportedly being set up to determine whether cancer rates near nuclear reactors are higher than elsewhere and thus, supposedly, whether there is reason to be concerned about routine reactor operation.
Well, we actually already know the answer to that question. Studies from Europe show that cancer rates, especially among children, are definitely higher near nuclear power facilities.2 The biggest culprit appears to be refueling of reactors − an operation necessary every 12-18 months depending on the particular reactor's cycle. When the top is taken off the reactor vessel to allow access to the core, and extraordinarily radioactive fuel rods are taken out of the core and moved to fuel pools, extremely high levels of radiation are freed from the reactor vessel. And some of that radiation does manage to get out into the environment.
Reactor containments are robust buildings, but they're not as solid as perhaps they look. There are large numbers of penetrations − places where pipes and electrical wires come in and out of the building − that provide a much easier escape route for radiation than through several feet of concrete. That radiation is, of course, toxic. And the European studies show that it kills.
Reaction to the NRC's announcement, even among clean energy groups, has been widely varied. Beyond Nuclear was outraged. The Radiation and Public Health Project said it was a good thing, since any study by the NRC would be set up to show nothing.
And indeed, the NRC certainly prefers studies designed to show nothing. With the cancellation of the NAS study, the NRC says it is back to relying on a 1990 study that was deliberately designed to show nothing. For instance, that study looked only at cancer fatalities, not incidence, thus potentially downplaying real health effects.
That study also looked at county-wide data, rather than focusing on areas closest to the reactor and areas where the predominant winds blow. And it counted the cancers based on where they were treated, rather than where they occurred. All of which was, deliberately I'd argue, intended to bury actual effects under many layers of statistical white noise and static.
The question is whether the new study would have been any better. And the involvement of NAS does lead to some skepticism in that regard. While NAS' BEIR-VII study on radiation did confirm, as radiation researchers had long averred, that there is no "safe" level of radiation exposure, the nuclear industry has been able to stack other NAS panels on nuclear issues with its own cherry-picked apologists. And there was little evidence, despite the efforts of Beyond Nuclear and others to help choose participants and define study parameters, that this study was going to be set up − as the European studies were to a larger degree − to get past statistical noise and find anything if it's there.
And, if it were, it seemed likely to us that the NRC would either a) disavow it or b) end it before completion. Seriously, did anyone really think the NRC would pay for and release a study showing health effects from nuclear power?
Since b) is exactly what happened, however, it's hard not to suspect that even the preliminary results (the study had completed Phase I of three phases) were so explosive that the NRC felt it had to end the study before it really even got off the ground.
That suspicion is only amplified by the NRC's pathetic rationale for ending the study: that it was too expensive and would take too long.
Too expensive? It would have cost only US$8 million to complete Phase 2 of the study3, which was to entail a detailed examination of the areas around seven reactor sites. Phase 3, involving all of the remaining 50 or so sites, would have cost about US$60 million and taken 8-10 years. So, that's US$6 million/year for an agency with a budget of about US$1 billion.
Too expensive? That excuse is simply laughable. And too long? Well, yes, 8-10 years for full completion is a long time. On the other hand, it's been 25 years since the last, hysterically-deficient study; another few years doesn't seem like such a terrible burden, especially since it could have been conducted faster with more money spent per year. Even US$12 million/year doesn't seem far-fetched considering the NRC's budget. Moreover, the seven-site Phase 2 of the study might have done the job on its own. Especially to answer a question that is rather fundamental: are the facilities the NRC is spending that US$1 billion/year regulating killing Americans?
Even though we already know the answer to the question; which, again, is yes, these facilities are killing Americans. We know that because of European studies that were properly conducted. The problem, and the real reason the NRC killed the study, is that most Americans − including their elected officials − don't know that the question already has been answered affirmatively. European studies of cancer around nuclear power plants don't get much media attention in the U.S. But a U.S. study, paid for by a U.S. government agency and conducted by the U.S. National Academy of Sciences? A study like that, that found anything at all, would be big news.
That would be news too big for the NRC to handle. So the agency once again chose the interests of its real constituents − nuclear power utilities − above the interests of the public it is supposed to serve. The NRC felt that this time it couldn't take the chance that it could ensure the study would be designed intentionally to find nothing, and thus − afraid the study might find something − the NRC decided some bad publicity now (as in an excellent editorial4 from the Asbury Park Press) over killing the study beat a lot of potentially worse publicity later if the public learned that yes, they and their children are in danger of dying because they live near nuclear facilities.
After all, the public outcry from that kind of publicity might lead to the NRC quickly having nothing left to regulate.
Still, it has to be said that no study at all would be preferable to the kind of study the NRC wanted. Another deliberately-designed whitewash would be even worse than the status quo. The danger is that if the backlash now causes the NRC to reconsider, but demand its own changes to the parameters, whitewash is exactly what we'd get. Caveat emptor: be careful what you ask for. Especially from an agency, like the NRC, that has powerful reasons not to uncover the truth.