Radiation Study on Health near Reactors - San Onofre Selected

Background.  Danger posed by radiation has been a major concern of scientists, health officials, and the public ever since the dawn of the atomic era.  For many decades, officials in the government and the nuclear industry denied dangers posed by radiation.  But evidence mounted and finally in October of 1990 Congress established the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to apologize and to compensate those who died or got cancer from radiation exposure.  To date, compensation totaling $1.4 billion has been awarded to 21,679 people.  Today it is established that ionizing radiation can cause a death or a host of serious medical problems.

            Because all nuclear power plants (NPP) regularly release low levels of radiation into the atmosphere and water, officials wanted to know if such radiation might have harmful effects on surrounding populations.  For decades, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has relied on a 1991 study by the National Cancer Institute which failed to find a link between incidence of cancer and living near a NPP.  This study is now outdated and considered heavily flawed, and its inability to find a connection is not considered evidence that there is no connection.

            More recent and more carefully conducted studies have found such a connection, particularly in children, and as a result the NRC in 2010 asked the National Academy of Sciences to revisit the issue. The NAS reviewed available evidence and on March 29 of 2012 it issued a 460 page report with recommendations for more definitive research. Below is a summary of the report and the issues involved. 

 

 

National Academy of Sciences Recommends Cancer Study

For Communities within 31 miles of San Onofre

 

Report Conducted at the Request of the NRC

 

 

 The National Academy of Sciences has released a new 460 page report entitled  “An Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities.” The study was written by 20 eminent research scientists specializing in radiation epidemiology.   The report was released by the National Research Council, the operating arm of the National Academy of Sciences and National Academy of Engineering.  This study was conducted at the request of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) to see whether those living near nuclear reactors are in increased danger of getting cancer. Public comments on the report may be submitted until May 31 by writing to  crs@nas.edu.

            The report recommends that a detailed epidemiological study be conducted in the vicinity of San Onofre and 5 other nuclear power plants in the United States.  San Onofre is the only site chosen west of the Mississippi River.

            The authors recommended that the area of study should be a radius of 50 km (31 miles)  surrounding each facility.  The radius around San Onofre would include 2.4 million people in over 50 cities and towns including  Laguna Beach, Newport Beach, Huntington Beach,  Costa Mesa, Irvine, Mission Viejo,  Tustin, Santa Ana, Lake Forest, Lake Elsinore, Murrieta, Temecula, Vista, Oceanside, Carlsbad, Encinatas,  Escondido, Solana Beach,  and all of Camp Pendleton.  

 

            The scientists first reviewed older studies of cancer effects which sometimes provided mixed results.   Then they looked at more recent studies which did find effects.  For example, two studies in France and Germany examined thousands of children and discovered that those living near nuclear power plants are twice as likely to get childhood leukemia.  These results suggested that new research needs to be done not only with adults but also with children and pregnant women.  Children are known to be 15-20 times more sensitive to radiation, and the human fetus is 30-50 times more vulnerable. NRC guidelines for radiation exposure are based only on adult males.

Many residents living near nuclear power plants have long been concerned about the possibility of radiation exposure in the event of an earthquake or accident caused by human error or equipment failure.  The new report raises the possibility that there could be serious consequences to residents even if a nuclear power plant operates without accidents.

Radiation can come from many sources at a nuclear power plant.  San Onofre, for example, manufactures about 500 pounds of radioactive waste per day.  It now stores over 4,000 tons of nuclear waste on site because no other place in the country will store such deadly material.  The town of San Clemente has already voted to oppose any relicensing of San Onofre until all radioactive waste is removed.

Another possible source of radiation is the regular and unannounced releases of radioactivity into the atmosphere and ocean.  Because such releases are a necessary part of the operation of nuclear reactors, the NRC permits such discharges but requires operators to document their emissions. 

In 2010, Edison’s documents reveal that it released 34 different radionuclides including  Plutonium, Strontium 90, and Cesium 137, all extremely toxic to living tissue.  San Onofre reactors are fitted with air ejectors which released radioactive byproducts into the atmosphere for 44 hours during the year.  The plant also conducted 550 hours of liquid radioactive batch releases into the ocean.  Edison reports statistical averages about these releases once a year, but they do not make public the dates of the releases or their concentrations.  Days of radioactive releases are combined with days of no releases to produce statistical averages which are then labeled as “low level.”   

Until the proposed cancer studies are carried out, no one will know for sure whether it is safe to live near a nuclear power plant even if there are no accidents.  The industry claims that the radiation near nuclear plants is safe for adult males, but some medical authorities warn that even low levels of radiation can be dangerous, especially for children and the human fetus.  

The effects of radiation are cumulative, and concentrations can mount for those who are exposed year after year and decade after decade.   Everyone already gets some radiation from the environment and from medical procedures so possible additional radiation from nuclear reactors can be worrisome. It is known that radiation can cause cancer, and in 2011 there were 163,480 new cases of cancer in California and 56,030 cancer deaths.  No one knows the exact cause of these cases, but experts say that most cancer has environmental origins.

The purpose of the proposed cancer study is to answer some of these questions. Whether the proposed cancer study will be conducted in the 31 mile area surrounding San Onofre will be up to the NRC.  Chairman Jaczko was asked about this on his recent press conference in Dana Point.  He said that the NRC was currently studying the National Academy of Sciences report and will make a decision later this year.

 

Web Links

http://www.nap.edu/catalog.php?record_id=13388#aboutprepub   Free PDF version of the study from the National Academy Press (printed version costs $68).

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.27425/full   full report of French study

Int J Cancer. 2008 Feb 15;122(4):x-xi.  KiKK study German NPP epidemiology   in Int J Cancer. 2008 Feb 15;122(4):721-6.

http://www.nirs.org/radiation/radhealth/kikkcommentary0709ijoeh.pdf  German study

 

 

Important Issues

 

            1.   This study was commissioned by the NRC and carried out by the highly prestigious National Academy of Sciences.

            2.    The study reviewed conflicting evidence but noted that many older studies were heavily flawed. Failure to find effects is not considered proof that such effects do not exist. Several more recent studies reported that children living near NPP were twice as likely to get childhood leukemia.

            3.    The NAS recommended that new and more precise epidemiological studies be carried out.  The NRC will consider this advice and determine whether to go ahead with the proposed studies.

            4.     The NAS report recommended studying cancer in populations surrounding 6 NPP in the United States.  San Onofre was one of the sites chosen, the only site west of the Mississippi River.

            5.     The proposed area of study is a radius of 50 km (31 miles) surrounding each plant.

            6.     The summary above provides details from Edison’s own records on the amounts and types of radioactive elements that San Onofre releases into the atmosphere and ocean on a regular basis.

7.    In  2011 there were 163,480 new cases of cancer in California and 56,030 cancer deaths. 

8.    If there is further evidence for a link between NPP and cancer,  it may indicate that it is not safe to live near a NPP even if there never is an accident.  Those at greatest risk would be children and the human fetus.  Health concerns over continuous exposure to low level radiation might mean that all NPP in populated areas should be decommissioned.