|This Jan. 23, 2017 staff bile photo shows the|
shuttered San Onofre Nuclear Generation Station
in San Clemente. Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange
by Teri Sforza, email@example.com, dailynews.com,
4 February 2017
Federal regulators killed a rigorous examination of cancer in millions of Americans living near nuclear plants because they were convinced the study couldn’t link reactors to disease and would be too costly, newly released records show.
Doubts over the study’s usefulness ran deep at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency overseeing America’s aging fleet of nuclear plants. But some study skeptics pushed to save it nonetheless, arguing that modern science could help address public concerns over possible health risks related to the plants. They couldn’t convince their bosses, however, who concluded that the $8 million price tag for the pilot study — which would have examined San Onofre and six other sites — couldn’t be justified.
The previously unreported rift is captured in more than 1,000 pages of NRC documents obtained by Southern California News Group under the Freedom of Information Act. Some officials worried that killing the study would be “a PR fiasco,” reigniting questions about the demise of what some saw as the most significant federal examination of nuclear plant safety in a generation.
The push for this new probe was driven by dissatisfaction with the U.S. government’s reliance on an unsophisticated 27-year-old study — employing even older data — to assure Americans there are no health risks associated with living near nuclear power plants.
Several recent European studies found disturbing links between childhood cancers and kids living close to nuclear plants, and NRC staffers traded emails citing them. A senior agency adviser dismissed the methodology used in those studies. “Publish or perish,” she wrote to her colleagues.
NRC staffers began pressing for an update of the old U.S. study a decade ago. The NRC contracted with the National Academies of Sciences, a separate agency, to design a modern scientific assessment in 2010. The NRC spent five years and $1.5 million on the effort before abandoning it two years ago.
“Most people realize that all the evidence shows you’re not going to find anything,” said Brian Sheron, retired director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, who supported the study.
“There are so many variables. The point was, even if you found something that looked like a relationship, you wouldn’t know what to attribute it to. Did the person live their whole life near the nuclear plant? Or did they live somewhere downwind of an asbestos factory for 20 years? In order to get all the facts, it was going to be prohibitively expensive.”
Assumptions about the outcome enraged some critics.
“That is what they said: ‘We don’t need to do the study because we already know the answer,’ ” said Roger Johnson of San Clemente, a retired neuroscience professor who followed the proceedings closely. “How could they possibly know the answer?”
The scientific method begins with a hypothesis, but it needs to be tested by experimentation.
“You do not know whether the study will find something unless you do the study,” said Ourania Kosti, who headed the aborted study at the National Academies of Sciences.
“The NRC asked us to do the study because of concerns of members of the public who live near the nuclear facilities it regulates. I think it is important to use the best information available to communicate with members of the public about risks.”
FAULTY DATA ON HAND?
In 2012, the French Institute of Health and Medical Research found that kids living within 3 miles of nuclear power plants had double the risk of developing acute leukemia as those living farther away. The peak impact was on children between the ages of 2 and 4, and the findings echoed those of a German study.
For decades, however, the official opinion of the United States government has been: “From the data at hand, there was no convincing evidence of any increased risk of death from any of the cancers we surveyed due to living near nuclear facilities.”