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Analyzing Cancer Risks Around Nuclear Facilities

Nuclear facilities licensed by the NRC routinely release very small amounts of radioactivity during normal operations. Even though the NRC closely monitors the plants and assures that these releases are well below regulatory limits, some community members remain concerned about potential health risks from these facilities.

To address the concerns, the NRC has asked the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) – an independent group of experts chartered by Congress to carry out transparent, objective and detailed studies independent of the government — to examine how best to perform a state-of-the-art study on cancer risk for individuals living around NRC-licensed nuclear facilities. The NAS effort will study nuclear power plants that generate electricity and certain plants that create the nuclear fuel used in the power plants.

The NRC is seeking the expertise of the NAS to update the 1990 report by the U.S. National Institutes of Health’s National Cancer Institute (NCI). This report, “Cancer in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities,” found that cancer mortality rates were not elevated in these populations. The NRC staff uses the NCI report as a primary resource during public discussions of cancer risk in communities that are near or around nuclear facilities.

The NRC is interested in having NAS examine whether it is technically feasible to determine if cancer risks in the vicinity of a nuclear facility are greater than the cancer risks in similar areas without a nuclear facility. The NRC also expects the NAS panel to determine if we can reduce the study areas around the facilities to something smaller than the counties used in the NCI report. (This would provide data more specific to localities.) Phase 1 will determine whether there is a scientifically sound approach that can meet the goals of the study request. If so, the approach will be developed using acceptable methods for evaluating cancer risk that could be associated with nuclear facilities.

In January, the NAS formed a committee of 20 experts —chaired by Dr. John E. Burris. The committee has already held public meetings in Washington, D.C., and Chicago, with additional meetings planned for Atlanta and Los Angeles in the future. The meetings will allow committee members to collect data and stakeholder input in developing their conclusions on the first phase of the study.

The phase 1 report is due to be publicly released in December 2012. A 60-day comment period will allow stakeholders an additional opportunity to provide input on that phase. The NRC will review the phase 1 report and consider the stakeholder comments before deciding on if and how to proceed on phase 2 of the study. Depending on what’s decided for phase 2 a final report would be expected by the middle of 2013.

More information on the study is on the NRC website here: http://http://www.nrc.gov/reading-rm/doc-collections/fact-sheets/fs-analys-cancer-risk-study.htmlor on the National Academy of Sciences website here: http://dels.nas.edu/global/nrsb/CancerRisk.

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

2 responses to “Analyzing Cancer Risks Around Nuclear Facilities

  1. Alan May 2, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Useful post, thank you. I do take some issue with the following wording, however:

    The NRC is interested in having NAS examine whether it is technically feasible to determine if cancer risks in the vicinity of a nuclear facility are greater than the cancer risks in similar areas without a nuclear facility.

    Technically, in a science-based view, isn’t the relative risk of cancer in those communities irrelevant, or at least disconnected, from the topic of the effect of the nuclear plant on the cancer rate? Because I am familiar with the subject I already have the expectation that the impact is far below detectable levels. An important point to stress in regards to radiation risk is the validity of minimizing exposure to something that is known to have a negative effect, regardless of the fact that no observable effect will be observed. In fact, I consider that idea to be a mainstay of consumer and public protection.

    I have seen peer-reviewed papers that claimed to have found cancer bubbles around nuclear plant, but then categorically dismiss the possibility of the nuclear plant being the cause. Although there is nothing to disagree with, it creates headlines that send a message contrary to the conclusion.

    • Moderator May 4, 2011 at 10:07 am

      The NAS panel is looking at the state of today’s science while avoiding prior expectations. They are attempting to see what, if any, study method can appropriately account for enough variables to see if there’s any association between nuclear power plants and cancer risk. The NRC has also asked the NAS to develop brochures or other appropriate means of effectively informing the media and the public to attempt to ensure the “headlines” are accurate.

      Scott Burnell

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