By Michael Mariotte

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) last week abruptly ended a study 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, as we’ve reported, show that cancer rates, especially among children, are definitely higher near nuclear power facilities. 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. I mean, geez, right now I’m a cancer “incidence,” not a fatality, and I hope it stays that way for a long time. And though my own cancer wasn’t caused by living near a reactor, since I don’t; if I did, I’d want to know if it was.

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 …read more

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