NAS study of cancer risks near U.S. nuclear facilities

April 4, 2012, 6:00AMANS Nuclear CafeRod Adams

The National Academy of Science (NAS) has released phase one of a study titled Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities. The release officially opened a 60-day public comment period in which stakeholders can provide their inputs to help guide the next phases of the study. The project email address that should be used for submitting comments is crs@nas.edu.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission tasked the National Academy of Science to perform the study. The expenditure was considered to be a prudent investment because the existing study on the risk of developing cancer based on proximity to nuclear facilities in the United States is more than 20 years old. In the intervening years, there have been a number of attempts internationally to determine if there is a link between radiation released from nuclear energy facilities and cancer risks; the results of those studies have been inconclusive.

In cases like the announcement of a discovery of a cluster of childhood leukemia cases near the Sellafield facility in Great Britain, the news of results that seemed to indicate a problem received a great deal of publicity. News of the cluster's discovery was broken during a television program that aired in November 1983. The careful science required to more fully understand the cause of the higher than expected rate of childhood leukemia took decades.

It is likely that few of the people who formed opinions about the radiation-related risk of cancer from the television story or the numerous repetitions of that story have heard anything about the study titled Childhood leukaemia, nuclear sites, and population mixing, which was accepted for publication in the British Journal of Cancer in October 2010. That study showed that there was a strong correlation between population influx in a formerly isolated rural area and the risk of childhood leukemia. That relationship has been found in populations near expansive facilities that had nothing to do with nuclear energy or radiation.

The effort to find out if there is a risk associated with living near a nuclear energy facility is full of scientific obstacles. Many of the challenges that are inherent in the task are detailed in the summary that the NAS released as part of the phase one scoping effort. The listed challenges include the difficulty in finding accurate data that relates cancer incidence to physical addresses, lack of any records related to population mobility in areas of interest, some uncertainty about radiation release data, and the expectation that any increases in cancer related to the measured levels of radiation will be so low as to be statistically hidden in the noise of normal variations.

Of course, scientists who have been tasked with finding ways to perform a study can almost always recommend several methods that might provide useful information-if provided with enough resources. This effort is no exception to that rule; the summary provides no fewer than four potential study designs, each with its own set of limitations and strengths. Not surprisingly, the summary also includes a recommended course of action that would involve a substantial effort in data gathering, modeling, and analysis-assuming that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission decides to proceed with the study.

The final recommendation in the summary is the development of processes for involving and communicating with stakeholders "to achieve effective collaboration with local people and officials and increase social trust and confidence."

Dr. Arjun Makhijani, a man with a long history of opposition to the use of nuclear energy, strongly supports the effort and expects the NAS to find evidence of risk, especially to children. He intends to provide a substantial input during the comment period. I expect that other professional antinuclear activists will provide their comments and demand to be a part of the stakeholder engagement process.

A number of experts in the field of radiation biology are also preparing to provide comments. Here is an example comment from an e-mail list inhabited by people who have studied radiation health effects for decades:

If the U.S. NRC and these radiation protection folks would only look at the (20-year-old) cell biology evidence instead of their LNT [linear no-threshold] ideology and epidemiology, they would realize that they are trying to measure a cancer risk (radiation-induced DNA damage rate) that is six million (6,000,000) times lower than the spontaneous risk of cancer (i.e., natural DNA damage rate).

The numbers in that comment relate to the fact that the dose rate from licensed nuclear facilities in the United States is less than 1 mSv/year to the most exposed person. There is zero probability that a population exposed to such a dose will exhibit any increase in expected cancer risks. It is always possible, however, to expend a large sum of money and time performing studies and involving a number of stakeholders, many of whom tend not to reveal their actual stake in the matter.

The American Nuclear Society includes experts in the field of radiation biology who should take the time to read the phase one scoping summary, learn more about the proposed study methods, and provide informed comments. The most reasonable decision would be that there are any number of higher priority ways to spend the money and the scientific resources that would be needed to perform the proposed phase two study; it is unlikely to provide any new or useful information.

A more likely decision will be to perform the study, but perhaps a sufficient number of informed comments will prevent initial assumptions about risks from producing yet another study that seems to support the notion that radiation risk is always some number greater than zero-no matter how low the dose.

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Adams

Rod Adams is a nuclear advocate with extensive small nuclear plant operating experience. Adams is a former engineer officer, USS Von Steuben. He is the host and producer of The Atomic Show Podcast. Adams has been an ANS member since 2005. He writes about nuclear technology at his own blog, Atomic Insights.


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