Does Living Near a Nuclear Power Plant Increase the Risk of Cancer?
The NRC has terminated an important cancer study so we may never find out
Roger Johnson, PhD
About 47 million Americans live within 31 miles of a nuclear power plant (NPP) and 112 million live within 50 miles. About 2.5 million live within 31 miles of San Onofre. The 31 mile (50 km) radius starts at Huntington Beach, Newport Beach, Santa Ana, and Irvine in the north and circles around all of Camp Pendleton to Temecula, Vista, San Marcos, Escondido all the way to Encinitas and Solana Beach to the south.
Why the 31 mile radius? That was the area chosen by scientists from the prestigious National Academy of Science (NAS) to be included in a study of cancer risks for people living near San Onofre. The purpose was to see if just living near a nuclear power plant (NPP) may increase the risk of cancer, especially in children. Why San Onofre? The NAS research scientists proposed a nationwide pilot study and picked San Onofre as one of six NPP in the United States to be included. It was the only one selected west of the Mississippi River.
This study is not related to issues like accidents, radiation leaks, equipment failures, human error, earthquakes, the possibility of a terrorist attacks, or the current plan to store for the indefinite future almost 2,000 tons of radioactive spent fuel waste consisting of plutonium, uranium, and their radioactive fission products. Rather it is because San Onofre (like all NPP), regularly releases low-level radiation into the atmosphere and ocean. The NAS wanted to find out if there are health consequences for residents regularly exposed to radiation. The NRC (Nuclear Regulatory Commission) bases its guidelines for allowable radiation exposure on the standard adult male. This ignores the fact that women are much more vulnerable to radiation than men, and children are even more vulnerable. By far the largest radiation risk is for the human fetus which is 50 times more vulnerable than the adult male. Because of the special risk to children, the proposed NAS study features a particular emphasis on risks for children. Previous studies of radiation exposure from NPP in the U.S. failed to focus on women, children, and the unborn.
Radiation and Cancer
The issue is controversial worldwide but not widely recognized in the U.S. There are many causes of cancer, most of them environmental, but it is not known what levels of radiation cause cancer and if the radiation released from NPP can cause cancer. There is no question that radiation can adversely affect cell DNA and lead to a host of medical problems which may not show up for decades. According to the American Cancer Society, about one out of four deaths in California are caused by cancer. Cancer kills more children under 14 than any other disease and about 1.5 million living residents of California have a history of cancer. In 2016 it is predicted that there will be 173,200 new cases of cancer in California and 59,000 are expected to die.
There are many sources of radiation, but not all radiation is harmful. What is harmful is ionizing radiation, a type of radiation at the high-energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum. X-rays are a good example: a type of radiation that passes right through your body. Everyone knows that X-rays can be dangerous to living tissue which is why you wear a shield in the dentist office (and why the technicians flee the room). The opposite end of the electromagnetic spectrum includes radio and TV waves, microwave radiation, and the spectrum of visible light.
High levels of ionizing radiation are extremely dangerous but less is known about low levels of ionizing radiation such as what is released at NPPs. The nuclear industry promotes the view that radiation below certain levels is harmless. Many scientists disagree. The most definitive analysis of this issue comes from a volume entitled Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation VII, better known as the BEIR-7 Report (http://www.nap.edu/read/11340/chapter/2#2). The report was carried out by scientists at the National Research Council who state in their summary that “radiation is one of the most thoroughly studied potential hazards to humans.” They concluded that there is no threshold below which radiation is harmless. In addition, their research emphasizes that the effects of radiation are cumulative. This means that a single exposure might not be harmful, but each exposure adds to all previous exposures. Nuclear proponents like to trivialize radiation and cite how little radiation there is in single exposures like eating a banana or flying at high altitude to Denver. But since every exposure is cumulative, doctors warn us to avoid repeated, unnecessary, and excessive exposures.
Radiation Releases from San Onofre
What can exposure do over a lifetime? San Onofre has been releasing radiation into the environment since 1968. Southern California Edison (SCE) claims that their releases are allowable under guidelines created by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). The NRC makes NPP operators follow a regulation named after the aspirational acronym ALARA which means permitting radiation releases “As Low As Reasonably Achievable.” They are careful to refer to these releases as “permissible” rather than “safe.”
The effluent releases are unannounced and carried out on a regular basis. Air ejectors blast radioactive gaseous effluents into the atmosphere and prevailing winds usually carry this eastward over populated areas. San Onofre also has huge pipes 18 ft. in diameter where radioactive liquid effluents are added to water pumped into the ocean at a million gallons per minute. Plant operators are required to file quarterly averages about these discharges according to federal regulations 10 CFR 50.36a.
Summaries of averages mean that a few days of heavy releases are averaged with many days of low level releases or no releases, thus producing low average readings. The dates of the releases are kept secret so surfers at San Onofre State Beach have no way of knowing if they are in the water near the pipes on a release date. Some releases go on continuously for more than 24 hours. Records reveal, for example, that in 2012 (when the reactors were not operating) there were 335.1 hours of liquid effluent releases. The longest one went on continuously for 28 hours and discharged 1.031 billion gallons into the ocean.
Is Low-Level Radiation Harmless?
The view that low-level radiation is harmless often stems from a study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) conducted a quarter of a century ago. By today’s standards, this research is heavily flawed and is now considered outdated. The NCI studied only cancer deaths, not cancer incidence, and it studied only where people died, not where they lived or worked. It also averaged people living very near a NPP with those who lived far away. For example, marines or their families living in Carlsbad were averaged with those living near the Mexican border because all were in San Diego County. The health records of residents of San Clemente were considered the same as those living in Fullerton 40 miles away merely because available health records were organized by county.
The main takeaway from this study is that it failed to find a link between cancer and emissions from NPP. The study did not establish, as some in the nuclear industry have implied, that NPP emissions are harmless. A basic fact in scientific research is that the failure to find an effect never proves there is no effect. A more parsimonious explanation is that failure to find an effect means poor methodology and that better studies are needed.
Unfortunately, it is very difficult to conduct this kind of research. For example, in addition to man-made radiation there are many natural sources of radiation. When people get cancer, it is extremely difficult to discover the source of their cancer. In addition, accurate health records are hard to obtain and they are not organized in concentric circles around NPP. People move in and out and may work far from where they live. All of these issues are well-known. Decades ago the research was not able to deal with these problems but newer scientific methodology is better at controlling these variables. This is why it is important to conduct new research using the latest techniques. Still another problem is that adverse health effects like cancer are sometimes not manifested for years or even decades. In Japan, an estimated 2,000 people continue to die every year, not from old age, but from medical complications caused by the radiation they received as children in August of 1945 when they lived near Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
In recent years important scientific studies have been done in Europe using far better methodology than the 1990 National Cancer Institute study done in the U.S. One study in France and another in Germany both revealed that children living near a nuclear power plant had twice the risk of child leukemia. Another report in the British Medical Journal in 2015 (http://www.bmj.com/content/351/bmj.h5359 ) examined cancer in 407,391 workers at nuclear plants in 15 countries. They reported an excess risk of cancer. The International Agency for Research on Cancer stated that this study strengthens the evidence of a causal relationship between solid cancers and exposure to low doses of ionizing radiation. It went on to add that the findings are important not only for the protection of workers in the nuclear industry but also for the general public.
The National Academy of Sciences Research is Terminated by the NRC
Unfortunately there have been almost no recent studies done in the United States. In 2010 the NRC finally decided not to conduct actual research on this issue but rather to study whether to study the problem. The result was a 412 page volume published two years later entitled Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities (http://www.nap.edu/catalog/18968/analysis-of-cancer-risks-in-populations-near-nuclear-facilities-phase). The report summarized what is known and not known and recommended a pilot study to see whether a full study should be done. The NAS enlisted leading scientific experts headed by epidemiologist Dr. Jon Samet, Professor of Preventative Medicine at USC Keck School of Medicine. The research team came up with another report and submitted it to the NRC in Dec. of 2014. It concluded that the research can be done, should be done, and it made a detailed research proposal on exactly how it should be done.
The NRC sat on this report for 10 months. After five years of studying whether to study the problem the NRC refused to fund any actual research and instead terminated the project. It suggested that nothing new would be learned and that it could not afford the $8 million out of its over $1 billion budget. It was very clear that the nuclear industry did not want this research done. To date, no other government agency has shown interest in funding this study leading some to believe that the nuclear industry has enormous clout with the entire government.
Does the NRC Protect People or Protect the Nuclear Industry?
It is easy to see why there is now a clash of opinions about the danger of low-level radiation. The existence of the entire nuclear industry depends on convincing the public that that low-level radiation is harmless. The NRC, the NEI (the Nuclear Energy Institute which is the powerful lobbying arm for the nuclear industry), and the utilities which profit are understandably reluctant to engage in research about the safety of the radiation. Theoretically, the purpose of the NRC is to protect the public. Their logo proudly states: “Protecting People and the Environment,” but some wonder if the objective of the NRC is to protect the nuclear industry and its profits. It is no secret that the NRC receives over 90% of its funding not from the government but from the very industry that it is supposed to regulate. Officially it is a regulatory agency of the U.S. Government but many consider it the poster boy of a “captured” agency. Its commissioners are vetted by the nuclear industry and ousted if they do not follow the nuclear industry agenda. The NRC generally acts in the interest of the industry rather than in the interests of the public it is supposed to protect.
Dr. Ourania Kosti, the National Academy of Sciences project director, says that the research project is still ready to go if Congress or another government agency provides the funding. No one knows whether the study will ever be done. The NRC continues to rely on the flawed 1990 NCI study which provides the results it likes. Vice President Biden and President Obama hype a multi-billion dollar “Moon Shot” war against cancer but they make no effort to fund this NAS research on cancer. In the meantime, about 584,800 Americans are expected to die this year from cancer (about 1,500 per day) yet the government refuses to fund basic cancer research which may shed light on its causes.