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

By Rod 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.

_________________

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.

6 Responses to NAS study of cancer risks near U.S. nuclear facilities

  1. Can you provide the study methodology you undertook which supports the claim that “There is zero probability that a population exposed to such a dose will exhibit any increase in expected cancer risks”.

    The NRC wouldn’t have to undertake their study if they had your data.

    Or did you just make it up?

  2. Brian Mays

    Mr. Applebaum – Once again, you have demonstrated that you have poor reading comprehension skills. Rod’s words were the following:

    “There is zero probability that a population exposed to such a dose will exhibit any increase in expected cancer risks.”

    The key word (which I highlighted) is “exhibit.” Please consider what that means.

    Before you whine about my “methodology,” let me point out that I am using the risk model proposed by BEIR VII. Using this model, if the dose rate from licensed nuclear facilities in the United States is less than 1 mSv/year to the most exposed person, and if we assume that this hypothetical “most exposed person” has been exposed at this maximum limit each year for the entire duration of Nuclear Age (let’s say for the past 50 years), then that would result in an exposure of 50 mSv, which the BEIR VII model predicts would result an additional 0.5% increase in lifetime risk of developing cancer (i.e., 1 in 200 people would develop cancer).

    This must be compared, however, with the lifetime risk of developing cancer from all other causes, which BEIR VII claims is about 42%. So the additional risk incurred by the hypothetical “most exposed person” — who we assume has been sitting around absorbing the highest dose for longer than the oldest operating nuclear plant in the US (Oyster Creek) has been operating — is only 0.01.

    To put it in epidemiological terms, this is a relative risk factor of just 1.01. (For those who do not understand the terminology, a RR of 1.0 means no effect.) Do you really think that epidemiological techniques are going to be able to identify (with any confidence) a 1.01 RR?!!

    Bob – The methodology that I used is from BEIR VII. The rest is just common sense. You could very well benefit from good dose of the latter.

  3. @Bob – Brian did a good job of explaining my methodology – which has also included reading such reports as the SOARCA study.

    However, you have apparently understood my primary point:

    “The NRC wouldn’t have to undertake their study if they had your data.”

    They have the data. They have accepted irrational pressure from people with an antinuclear agenda to spend valuable resources rehashing the data all over again so they can appear to be responsive.

    Unfortunately, some people – like you – will never accept that a risk that is so close to zero that it cannot be measured should be called ZERO while we move on to solve more pressing problems. We need to use nuclear energy to help overcome important issues like energy prices high enough to choke economies, carbon dioxide emissions that are putting our existing environment at risk, and uneven wealth distribution based on the accident of geography or force of arms instead of based on human abilities and productive output.

  4. How would this NRC cancer risk link to NPP parks study take into account:
    -Coronal mass ejection periods of solar activity
    -natural background radiation or very high background radiation areas(VHBRA) in the Continental U.S. located at NPP parks
    -Genetic predisposition and redundant DNA & telomerase in aging for individuals
    How could you separate conspiracy theory from science with data fidelity 1.01 RR that low?
    Do you lay blame EM spectrum which comic rays, gamma rays , X-rays or far ultraviolet rays ionizing subatomic particles are responsible for mutagenetic risk for cancer?

  5. James Greenidge

    Maybe the issue can be distilled to assigning the maximum tolerable public rad dosage to the exact health equivalence of fossil fuel pollution; when you’re caught in the diesel fumes of a city bus, you received what in terms of rad exposure equivalence with the direct health effect of that fume exposure? Is there a minimum detectable fume health impact line anywhere? If rad readings are always lower than general fume effects then let it slide! Don’t discriminate pollutant-type health effect impact levels!

    James Greenidge
    Queens NY

  6. One of the big issues here is that nuclear plants are typically sited in either remote areas, where people may have poorer/slower access to medical services, or they are built in industrial areas where there is a lot of industrial pollution. Industries need a lot of energy, nuclear plants deliver it reliably at low cost in a compact packadge. So you can find lots of spurious relationships that would put the cancer risk up, but have nothing to do with ionizing radiation.