USA Nuclear officials killed study on whether reactors posed cancer risk to nearby residents
Federal regulators killed a rigorous examination of cancer in millions of Americans living near nuclear plants because they were convinced the study couldn’t link reactors to disease and would be too costly, newly released records show.
Doubts over the study’s usefulness ran deep at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency overseeing America’s aging fleet of nuclear plants. But some study skeptics pushed to save it nonetheless, arguing that modern science could help address public concerns over possible health risks related to the plants. They couldn’t convince their bosses, however, who concluded that the $8 million price tag for the pilot study — which would have examined San Onofre and six other sites — couldn’t be justified.
The previously unreported rift is captured in more than 1,000 pages of NRC documents obtained by Southern California News Group under the Freedom of Information Act. Some officials worried that killing the study would be “a PR fiasco,” reigniting questions about the demise of what some saw as the most significant federal examination of nuclear plant safety in a generation.
The push for this new probe was driven by dissatisfaction with the U.S. government’s reliance on an unsophisticated 27-year-old study — employing even older data — to assure Americans there are no health risks associated with living near nuclear power plants.
Several recent European studies found disturbing links between childhood cancers and kids living close to nuclear plants, and NRC staffers traded emails citing them. A senior agency adviser dismissed the methodology used in those studies. “Publish or perish,” she wrote to her colleagues.
NRC staffers began pressing for an update of the old U.S. study a decade ago. The NRC contracted with the National Academies of Sciences, a separate agency, to design a modern scientific assessment in 2010. The NRC spent five years and $1.5 million on the effort before abandoning it two years ago.
“Most people realize that all the evidence shows you’re not going to find anything,” said Brian Sheron, retired director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, who supported the study.
“There are so many variables. The point was, even if you found something that looked like a relationship, you wouldn’t know what to attribute it to. Did the person live their whole life near the nuclear plant? Or did they live somewhere downwind of an asbestos factory for 20 years? In order to get all the facts, it was going to be prohibitively expensive.”
Assumptions about the outcome enraged some critics.
“That is what they said: ‘We don’t need to do the study because we already know the answer,’ ” said Roger Johnson of San Clemente, a retired neuroscience professor who followed the proceedings closely. “How could they possibly know the answer?”
The scientific method begins with a hypothesis, but it needs to be tested by experimentation.
“You do not know whether the study will find something unless you do the study,” said Ourania Kosti, who headed the aborted study at the National Academies of Sciences.
“The NRC asked us to do the study because of concerns of members of the public who live near the nuclear facilities it regulates. I think it is important to use the best information available to communicate with members of the public about risks.”
In 2012, the French Institute of Health and Medical Research found that kids living within 3 miles of nuclear power plants had double the risk of developing acute leukemia as those living farther away. The peak impact was on children between the ages of 2 and 4, and the findings echoed those of a German study.
For decades, however, the official opinion of the United States government has been: “From the data at hand, there was no convincing evidence of any increased risk of death from any of the cancers we surveyed due to living near nuclear facilities.”
Which raises the question of the quality of the “data at hand.”
The 1990 report was done by the U.S. National Institutes of Health-National Cancer Institute (“Cancer in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities”) and has been criticized as deeply flawed. It examined more than 900,000 cancer deaths from 1950 to 1984, using mortality records collected from counties with nuclear facilities within their borders. It looked at changes in mortality rates for 16 types of cancer, and showed no increased risk of death.
But there were many problems with that approach, said critics and the NRC itself:
The 1990 report tracked mortality rates based on where people died, rather than where they lived before getting cancer.
Tracking cancer deaths, rather than how many people actually got cancer, may downplay the full health impact of living near a reactor, since many cancer patients survive.
It used countywide data to reach conclusions — a blunt measure that may again downplay the impact on those living closest to a reactor. Residents in La Habra and San Clemente live in the same county — but few will argue that their exposure to San Onofre is the same.
The new study was designed to address these weaknesses. The NRC asked NAS to evaluate cancer diagnosis rates, not just cancer deaths, and to divide the areas around nuclear facilities into geographical units much smaller than counties.
The NAS would then track not just geography and cancer incidence, but also radiological releases from the plants themselves, and see if there was any cancer correlation.
This study design is much more rigorous than what was done in Europe, and the NAS was the first to admit it was a complicated endeavor that would take an enormous amount of work.
A pilot study of seven of sites, including San Onofre, would take 39 months and cost $8 million, the NAS said, and those results would not necessarily extrapolate out to America’s other 60-or-so nuclear sites. Studying them all would take many more years, and many more millions, officials said.
Expecting that nothing would be found, NRC officials decided they couldn’t justify the costs.
Tension over the study mounted as years ticked by, with Sheron, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, squaring off with Michael Weber, the NRC’s deputy executive director for operations, research and compliance programs, emails show.
“FYI: Brian Sheron called me today, first to show off a new electric banjo, and second to tell me that someone associated with the 1990 cancer study has offered for a small amount of money ($2m) to update it. He was looking for my backing to push back against Mike Weber who, he said, has been going around saying the NAS study is dead,” wrote Eliot Brenner, director of the NRC’s public affairs office, to a colleague in July 2015.
“On the premise that something with some data, albeit mortality data rather than incidence data, is better than saying that the agency killed off the NAS study, I said I was for having something,” Brenner wrote.
Sheron and other NRC officials floated the idea of a scaled-down study by the NAS as well.
“Brian grabbed me late yesterday. His concern is that … it appears as if he is the one killing the Cancer study. He’s uncomfortable with that because he thinks it is hard for him to explain why (in his $55M budget) he doesn’t have money for this,” wrote Michael Case, director of the NRC’s engineering division in the Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research.
“He checked with Bill Dean (NRC’s regional administrator for the northeastern U.S.) and it seems Bill supports it. He also talked to Elliot and he thought it would be a PR fiasco if we didn’t do it,” Case wrote.
But Weber was apparently unmoved.
“Weber doesn’t think the Agency can afford even the smaller scale approach and asked us to reconsider our recommendation to move forward at all,” wrote Stephanie Coffin, deputy director with the NRC’s Division of Advanced Reactors and Rulemaking, to her colleagues. “He emphasized he was always a ‘fan’ but he can’t help but see that these ‘nice to have but don’t need to have’ projects cannot be justified in the current environment.”
Sheron responded: “I understand Mike’s feeling, but I’m not about to cancel this just because Mike thinks it’s a nice but not necessary project.”
About a month later, however, it was over.
“Hi All,” wrote Terry Brock, project manager for radiation studies and reporting, in August 2015. “This is to inform you all that the cancer study has been canceled. Three of the four Commissioners specifically lined out the study from the budget.”
Sheron would have liked to see a study happen, but the NRC has many other demands on its nearly $1 billion budget.
“It was a lot of money, and we couldn’t get the National Academies to say they could give us a definitive answer to the question,” Sheron said. “That was a lot of the driving force on the part of the commission and senior management. At the end, the National Academies couldn’t give us something definitive.”
The NRC felt comfortable with its decision because it already requires nuclear plant operators to sample air, water, and vegetation around their sites, and results show “only very tiny amounts of radioactive material are released during normal operation,” spokesman Scott Burnell wrote at the time. “That evidence supports the conclusion that the average U.S. citizen’s annual radiation dose from natural sources, such as radon and cosmic rays, is about a hundred times greater than the largest potential dose from a normally operating reactor.”
Nationwide, some 116 million people are “nuclear neighbors,” living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many remain convinced that the plants are tied somehow to local cancer clusters and other maladies.
Officials from the NAS and NRC heard heartbreaking testimony at public meetings on the study all over the country. “I want to remind you how important it is to protect people from the harmful things that are being put into our environment,” said Sarah Saurer, then 17, who lived near two reactors near Chicago and developed brain cancer at age 7. “I hope that in this study you will remember who you are doing this study for. It is for me and all of the other kids and people who live near nuclear power plants.”
They are not as certain as NRC officials were about the outcome.
The NRC likes the results it has, activist Johnson of San Clemente said — one bad study unable to find a cancer effect. Why upset this and risk the possibility that maybe there is one?
“The pure scientists only want pristine studies with no confounding variables. That is pretty impossible for this kind of work so you do the best you can. Improve on previous studies and hope that future studies will be better,” said Johnson, the retired neuroscience professor.
“What you don’t do is bury your head in the sand and say that we are not going to investigate something unless we already know everything. Science moves in steps, and it is time to take a big step forward from the awful study.”
Those recent European studies finding a correlation between childhood cancers and proximity to nuclear plants do not prove causation, but they raise huge questions. Johnson is unclear why living near a nuclear power plant in Europe might have an effect, but living near one in America would not.
Kosti, director of the aborted study at the National Academies of Sciences, wonders that as well.
“I think it is important to update the findings of the 1990 study using better methodologies and information,” Kosti said. “This is the reason the Academies agreed to carry out the update. The Academies remain willing to do the study, if asked to.”
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