Examining the Reasons for Ending the Cancer Risk Study

Scott Burnell
Public Affairs Officer

One way NRC regulations protect communities around U.S. nuclear power plants is by requiring the plants to regularly sample air, water, and vegetation around their sites. Results of this sampling are sent to the NRC (and in some cases state agencies) to show only very tiny amounts of radioactive material are released during normal operations.

Even with this scrutiny — and a 1990 study showing no difference in cancer mortality rates between those living near U.S. reactors and those living elsewhere — questions persist about cancer risk from nearby reactors. The NRC had worked with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) since 2010 on a study into the potential cancer risk of living near a U.S. nuclear power plant. But we ended this work earlier this month after a hard look at the low likelihood of getting usable results in a reasonable time frame.

radiationsymbolWhy are we comfortable that this decision, also driven by our budget situation, is in line with our mission to protect public health and safety?

First and foremost, the staff considered existing conditions around U.S. reactors, as shown by the ongoing environmental sampling and analysis we mentioned earlier. That evidence supports the conclusion that the average U.S. citizen’s annual radiation dose from natural sources, such as radon and cosmic rays, is about a hundred times greater than the largest potential dose from a normally operating reactor.

This information shows how complicated it would be to single out an operating reactor’s potential contribution to cancer risk. Researchers looking for small effects need a very large study population to be confident in their results. The NAS discussed this issue in its report on Phase 1 of the cancer risk study. The NAS said that the effort “may not have adequate statistical power to detect the presumed small increases in cancer risks arising from… monitored and reported releases.”

The NRC staff examined the NAS Phase 2 report plans to validate the methods recommended in Phase 1. The Academy was very clear that the pilot study at seven U.S. sites was unlikely to answer the basic risk question. The NAS proposal said: “any data collected during the pilot study will have limited use for estimating cancer risks in populations near each of the nuclear facilities or for the seven nuclear facilities combined because of the imprecision inherent in estimates from small samples.”

The pilot study would also examine potential differences between individual states’ cancer registries. Large differences in registry quality or accessibility would hurt the study’s chances of generating useful results.

The NAS concluded they would need more than three years and $8 million to complete the pilot study. If the pilot succeeded, expanding the research to all U.S. operating reactors would require additional years and tens of millions of dollars. The NRC decided that in our current budget environment the time and money would not be well spent for the possible lack of useful results.

The NRC agrees with the NAS that the study’s overall approach is scientifically sound. Interested individuals or groups can examine the NAS Phase 1 and 2 reports for a more detailed discussion of the methods and resources needed to conduct the proposed study. The NRC staff will examine international and national studies on cancer risk to see if we should conduct any future work in this area.

EXIT — A Good Sign of Radiation

Maureen Conley
Public Affairs Officer

refresh leafMost people know radioactive energy can be harnessed to provide electricity and even to diagnose and treat certain illnesses. But would it surprise you to learn that radioactive materials also perform an important safety function by lighting emergency EXIT signs?

Look for the EXIT sign the next time you go to work, school, a sporting event, religious service, the movies, or the mall. If the sign glows green or red, chances are it contains a radioactive gas called tritium. The tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, is sealed into glass tubes lined with a chemical that glows in the dark. Tritium emits low-energy radiation that cannot penetrate paper or clothing and even if inhaled, it leaves the body relatively quickly. As long as the tubes remain sealed, the signs pose no health, safety, or security hazard.

exit3We estimate there are more than 2 million of these signs in use in the United States. To ensure safety in handling and the manufacturing process, we and our Agreement State partners regulate the manufacture and distribution of tritium EXIT signs. Companies have to apply for and receive a license before they can manufacture or distribute one of these signs.

But because the signs are designed to be inherently safe, the NRC does not require any special training before a building can display the signs. Users are responsible for meeting the requirements for handling and disposal of unwanted or damaged signs and for reporting any changes affecting the signs.

exit2Proper handling and disposal is the most important safety requirement for these signs. A damaged sign could contaminate the immediate area and require an expensive cleanup. That is why broken or unwanted signs must be return to a licensed manufacturer, distributer, radioactive waste broker or radioactive waste disposal facility.

Tritium EXIT signs are one of several types of radioactive consumer products that we allow. These products can be produced and sold ONLY if they have a benefit that outweighs any radiation risk. See our earlier blog post for more information on how we regulate these products.

REFRESH is an occasional series where we revisit previous blog posts.