Feds Drop Study of Cancer Risk Near Nuclear Plants, Including Oyster Creek

Government agency argues that it doesn’t have the time or the resources to complete assessment of potential danger

Credit: Kirk Moore
B.L. England power plant in Cape May county
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission yesterday said it has ended a yet-to-be completed study begun five years ago to assess cancer risks near U.S. nuclear facilities, including the Oyster Creek plant in Lacey Township.

In a brief three-paragraph press the government agency said continuing the work was impractical, given the significant amount of time and resources it would have to expend, as well as its current budget constraints.

The study had been pushed by various environmental groups who have long been concerned about what they say are high cancer rates around nuclear power plants. Oyster Creek was one of eight facilities targeted by the assessment.

“They’re afraid to find out the truth. They’re petrified about the results,’’ said Janet Tauro, a founding member of Grandmothers, Mothers and More for Energy Safety, a New Jersey group critical of the Oyster Creek facility.

Oyster Creek, the oldest operating commercial nuclear unit in the United States has been the source of numerous releases of radiation into the air in recent years and also has caused some groundwater contamination. It was the only nuclear unit in New Jersey to be included in the study, which was led by the National Academy of Sciences. Oyster Creek is scheduled to taken out of service by 2019 under an agreement with the Christie administration.

[related]Despite shutting down the study, the NRC continues to ensure nuclear power plants in the nation comply with strict requirements that limit radiation releases from routine operations. It also analyzes environmental samples from near the plants. These analyses show the releases, when they occur, are too small to cause observable increases in cancer risk near the facilities.

“We’re balancing the desire to provide updated answers on cancer risk with our responsibility to use congressionally provided funds as wisely as possible,’’ said Brian Sheron, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research. He said it would be at least the end of the decade before it had answers and that the costs of completing the study were prohibitively high.

The remaining work was projected to take 39 months and cost $8 million, according to Neil Sheehan, a spokesman for the NRC. So far, $1.5 million has been spent on the study to date, he said.

“That’s a drop in the bucket,’’ countered Tauro, referring to the $8 million in additional costs. “What’s a child’s life worth?’’

David Pringle, campaign director of Clean Water Action, also said the study should go forward to assess risk from the nuclear units. “We know they emit radiation; we don’t know how much, and we don’t know the health impact,’’ he said.

Cindy Folkers, a radiation and health specialist at Beyond Nuclear, said some studies have pinpointed a link. “Study after study in Europe has shown a clear rise in childhood leukemia around operating nuclear power facilities, yet the NRC has decided to hide this vital information from the American public,’’ she said.

Sheehan, however, said the NRC has found previously that the highest offsite dose to an exposed member of the public living near a U.S. nuclear power plant is generally less than 1 percent of the amount of radiation the average citizen encounters in a year from all background and medical sources.

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