Nuclear plant cancer study pulled: Officials cite high costs

Opponents say ending nuclear plant cancer study ‘smells wrong’

Nuclear plant cancer study
Nuclear plant cancer study would cost $8 million.  Opponents say the cost is a ‘drop in the bucket’.

HARTFORD, Conn. – Federal regulators are pulling the plug on a five-year study of the risk of cancer in communities around six U.S. nuclear plants and a nuclear fuel site.

Remaining work on a pilot study would take too long, at more than three years, and cost too much, at $8 million, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission said Tuesday. It said any releases that occur “are too small to cause observable increases in cancer risk near the facilities.”

The commission already has spent $1.5 million. And completing the pilot study and subsequent nationwide reviews could take eight to 10 years, the agency said.

National Academy of Sciences researchers who were leading the study estimate it would be “at least the end of the decade” before they would have any answers, and the costs of completing the study are “prohibitively high,” said Brian Sheron, director of the NRC’s office of nuclear regulatory research.

“We’re balancing the desire to provide updated answers on cancer risk with our responsibility to use congressionally-provided funds as wisely as possible,” he said.

Beyond Nuclear, an anti-nuclear power group, said halting the study is outrageous and that funding it is a legitimate cost. It called the $8 million cost a “drop in the bucket” for the federal agency, which has a budget of more than $1 billion.

“It smells wrong,” said Linda Gunter, a spokeswoman for the group. “It doesn’t seem like a credible answer.”

U.S. nuclear power plants comply with requirements limiting radiation releases from routine operations, the NRC said.

The study was intended to update a 1990 review by the National Cancer Institute of cancer mortality rates around 52 nuclear power plants. That study said evidence did not show an “excess occurrence” of cancer.

Nuclear sites to be studied included active and decommissioned plants in California, Connecticut, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey and a nuclear fuel fabrication plant in Tennessee.

Daniel Steward, a legislator in Waterford, the site of the Millstone Power Station, said worries about cancer in the region are common. Millstone is Connecticut’s sole nuclear plant owned by Dominion Resources Inc.

The area also is home to the Naval Submarine Base, which has housed nuclear-powered submarines.

“It’s almost like you’re chasing something, and we’re not sure exactly what,” Seward said.

Emergency management officials periodically distribute potassium iodide tablets to residents in a 10-mile zone around the Millstone plant to reduce the likelihood of developing thyroid cancer. The public and emergency workers may be directed to take the pills and other protective actions, such as evacuation, if Millstone releases radioactive iodine in an emergency.

A 2001 study of the decommissioned Connecticut Yankee Nuclear Power Plant, about 30 miles from Waterford, found that exposures to radionuclides, a source of nuclear radiation, “are so low as to be negligible.”

The Canadian Press