NRC Cancels Cancer Study: Industry Seeks Greater Exposures, Weaker Limits

John LaForge

If you’d rather not find something, stop looking.
On Sept. 8 the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission cancelled the start of a study of cancer rates near nuclear reactors (and a uranium fuel production site). The NRC cited financial concerns as the reason, a suspect pretext considering that the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) estimated it would cost $8 million and take 39 months to do a pilot study of seven sites. (Germany spent 25 years investigating the question.) The stop-work order prompted Senator Edward Markey, D-Mass., to say, “The NRC blames budgetary constraints for ending the study, but what price do residents pay for living near operating nuclear facilities? We should know the answer, and the NRC should prioritize the resources to continue and complete this study.”
Paul Gunter, reactor specialist at Beyond Nuclear in Washington, said “[K]illing the NAS study only aids in making radiation risk and consequences more invisible.” Gunter called the decision a “major setback that is only going to benefit industry.”
The cancer study’s cancellation came only three months after the NRC shocked the scientific community by announcing that it would take seriously recent petitions for weakening “Standards for Protection Against Radiation.” The agency said June 23 it is considering adopting the so-called “hormesis” theory, that a little radiation is good for health and acts like a vaccination. Promoted by radiation industry boosters at the University of Wisconsin, “hormesis” hokum has been explicitly refuted and repudiated by the National Academy of Sciences. The NAS’ 7th book-length report on the biological effects of radiation, BEIR-VII, declared that any exposure, regardless of how small, can induce cancer.
Nuclear facilities legally emit gases and waste water contaminated with radioactive xenon, krypton, iodine-131, strontium, and tritium, etc. Reactors can’t even function without regularly venting these deadly materials -- releases that control pressure, temperature and vibrations inside the giant machines.  These emissions are believed to cause cancers and other illnesses among people living nearby.
The NRC’s juxtaposition of ignoring the effects of chronic low-level radiation exposures and openly studying debunked nonsense like “hormesis,” looks a lot like evidence of an agency captured by the industry it’s supposed to control.  Hundreds of studies that have found health effects, especially childhood leukemia, from low-doses are the writing on the wall that the NRC, the Energy Dept. and the EPA would rather not confront.

French and German Studies

In Jan. 2012, French researchers reported in the International Journal of Cancer a clear correlation between elevated acute childhood leukemia rates among kids and their nearness to operating reactors (“Childhood leukemia around French nuclear power plants -- the Geocap study, 2002-2007”).
This devastating study -- done by a team from three major scientific institutes -- demonstrated the doubling of childhood leukemia incidence in France. The increase in cancer was higher, up to 2.2 times normal, among children under age five. The study included the 2,753 cases of acute leukemia diagnosed in mainland France, and 30,000 contemporaneous population “controls.” The children’s last addresses were geo-coded and located around France’s 19 nuclear power stations, which operate 54 reactors.
The French researchers noted that they could see no environmental factor that could produce the excess cancers other than living in the plume of allowable radioactive emissions spewed by operating reactors.
Likewise in Germany, results of the 25-year-long “KiKK” studies – “Childhood Cancer in the Vicinity of Nuclear Power Plants” -- were published in both the International Journal of Cancer, and the European Journal of Cancer in 2008. These massive studies found higher incidences of cancers and even stronger associations with proximity to reactor installations than all previous reports. The main findings were a 60% increase in solid cancers, and a 117% increase in leukemia among young children living near Germany’s (then) 16 nuclear facilities between 1980 and 2003.
Similar leukemia spikes have been found around US reactors (European Journal of Cancer Care, Vol. 16, 2007) by researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina. Studying 17 research papers covering 136 reactor sites in the UK, Canada, France, the US, Germany, Japan and Spain, the incidence of leukemia in children under age nine living close to reactors -- compared to rates elsewhere -- showed an increase of 14% to 21%, while death rates from the disease were raised by 5% to 24%, depending on proximity to the radiation emitters.

EPA Floats Increased Accident Exposure Allowances

Further evidence of regulatory capitulation to industry are the EPA’s 2013 Protective Action Guides (PAGs) for responding to large-scale radiation releases -- like the meltdowns at Fukushima and Chernobyl. The new PAGs will save reactor owners the enormous, bankrupting costs of comprehensive disaster cleanup. Eerily, the new PAGs seem to presume the inevitability of radiation catastrophes that the industry of course claims are highly unlikely.
According to Daniel Hirsch, President of Committee to Bridge the Gap, plans for imposing the new PAGs “would allow the public to be exposed to extraordinarily higher levels of radiation than previously permitted” during radiation emergencies. The new PAGs also allow extremely high contamination of food. “In essence, nuclear power accidents could be so widespread and produce such immense radiation levels that the government would abandon cleanup obligations,” forcing people to absorb and live with far more cancers. Hirsch says the PAGs took effect in April 2013 but can be amended.
To cut costs, industry has long pushed for weakening radiation regulation. In 2002, Roger Clarke president of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) warned in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Some people think that too much money is being spent to achieve low levels of residual contamination.” The ICRP recommends exposure standards to governments for nuclear industry workers and the public. Today, although scientists have found that far more damage is caused by low dose radiation than was earlier thought possible, the ICRP’s 1990 recommendations to reduce worker and public exposures by three-fifths have never been adopted by the United States.