“The NAS was considering using new ways of examining the health impacts of radioactivity from NRC licensed sites by implementing a more detailed, more thorough, publicly shared research protocol. Such a protocol could have opened up the NRC’s regulatory regime to exhaustive scrutiny, revealing just how inadequate it is for examining health impacts.”

Federal agencies won’t look at cancer impacts of commercial nuclear facilities

By Cindy Folkers

If you thought the government of the United States, the country with the most nuclear power reactors in the world, might be interested in finding out the cancer impact of nuclear power on our children, you’d be wrong. But, our government is willing to give failed, uneconomic, decaying nuclear power reactors oodles of taxpayer money without first figuring out if and how they harm our children. Assessing potential health damage should be a prerequisite for reactor license renewal.

Citizens and lawmakers from California have been working to revivify a cancelled National Academy of Sciences (NAS) health study originally requested and funded by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) in 2010. The study was to have been carried out in two phases. The first phase “identified scientifically sound approaches for carrying out an assessment of cancer risks” that would inform the study design(s) to be carried out in Phase 2. 

Phase 1 recommended examining seven pilot sites, six of which are operating or closed nuclear power plants: Big Rock Point (MI, closed), Dresden (IL), Haddam (CT, closed), Millstone (CT), Oyster Creek (NJ), and San Onofre (CA, closed). The seventh site, Nuclear Fuel Services (TN), is a fuel processing and stockpile conversion facility.

Studies in Europe have shown elevated rates of childhood leukemias around nuclear power plants. No such study has been conducted in the United States. (Image: Courtesy of Dr. Ian Fairlie.)

There were also two study designs recommended in the subsequent 2012 Phase 1 report: an ecologic study that would look at a variety of cancers among adults and children over the operational history of the facilities; and a record-linkage-based case-control study examining cancer risks for childhood exposures to radiation during more recent operating histories of the facilities. Because the case-control study would have focused on children, Beyond Nuclear supported this study type over the ecologic study recommendation.

The NAS was preparing to perform the pilot study at the seven sites in order to see which study type had the stronger methodology to be performed nationwide when it was scuttled by the NRC in 2015.

The NRC justified the cancelation by publicly contending that it would cost too much, take too long, and not be able to see any health impact — claims that are still disputed. The NAS health study would have cost an estimated $8 million at the time it was first proposed. 

Yet, at the same time that the NRC claimed the cancer study was too expensive, it signed a 20-year lease for a third building at its Rockville, MD headquarters (against the advice of Congress) that will eventually mount to a cost of $350 million. The decision was made in anticipation of the so-called Nuclear Renaissance, which instead fizzled, leaving the NRC scrambling to lease out the new space instead. 

The NAS was considering using new ways of examining the health impacts of radioactivity from NRC licensed sites by implementing a more detailed, more thorough, publicly shared research protocol. Such a protocol could have opened up the NRC’s regulatory regime to exhaustive scrutiny, revealing just how inadequate it is for examining health impacts.

The NRC apparently had money for an expensive new building at its Rockville headquarters, 3 White Flint (foreground), but not for a study looking for cancers around commercial nuclear power plants. (Photo: US NRC)

Instead of asking the NRC to restart the original study, three members of the U.S. House of Representatives from California have asked the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to pick up the NAS study where the NRC left off, only to be rebuffed with the jaw-dropping claim by HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, that such a study would be “premature”(letter from X. Becerra to Hon. Mike Levin (D-CA), September 12, 2022), despite 60+ years of exposures to radiation from nuclear power. Becerra wants more delays to allow “collaboration”  with other agencies, like the U.S. Department of Energy that has historically been sanctioned from involvement in certain health studies. 

In fact, such studies done in Europe have shown increases of childhood leukemia around nuclear facilities worldwide. These studies were not “premature”, they were revelatory. Despite these findings, there has never been independent nationwide analysis in the U.S. examining connections between childhood cancer and nuclear power facilities. The NAS case-control study under consideration had a design similar to the European studies that found linkage between living near a nuclear reactor and increases in childhood cancers.

While Bacerra claims it is “premature” to study health impacts from nuclear power, it seems to be just the right time to throw more bailout money down the nuclear bottomless pit in order to keep the current reactor fleet running without knowing what their health impacts have been or will be.

In an ironic twist, the first $1.1 billion nuclear bailout was given to Diablo Canyon in California, a slap in the face for those asking for the health study. This taxpayer largess given to the California nuclear power plant was just a small piece of the $30 billion subsidy (by some estimates, nuclear subsidies could be even higher) earmarked for nuclear power in the Inflation Reduction Act.

In an ironic twist, the Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant in California received the first $1.1 billion nuclear bailout to keep operating, even though it was political leaders from California who had asked for a health study. (Photo: US NRC)

The two Diablo Canyon nuclear generating units released 72 curies of tritium gas alone in 2019, part of a suite of radionuclides routinely released by operating reactors. This particular isotope is a radioactive form of hydrogen that can collect in fetal tissue to twice the concentration as it does in maternal tissue. It is well-known that pregnancy development is particularly sensitive to damage from radiation exposure — more so than adults or even children — clearly making this an issue that should interest HHS, as well as one that should help determine whether nuclear power can continue to operate or if its impact on our future generations might be too great. After all, we have readily available, cheaper and safer alternatives.

Despite its published motto — “Protecting people and the environment” — the NRC’s main focus has always been nuclear reactor operations, while downplaying and denying rather than investigating health impacts. The agency’s cancellation of the child cancer study was industry-friendly and tone-deaf; in other words, expected. It had undertaken the study to soothe public anxiety about health impacts. When the NRC learned the study might not accomplish this, or worse, might reveal the agency’s shortcomings as a watchdog agency, it pulled the plug.

From HHS, on the other hand, I expected better. “Health” after all, is in their name. 

Cindy Folkers is the Radiation and Health Hazard Specialist at Beyond Nuclear.

Headline photo of people on the beach by San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (now permanently closed) by Don Ramey Logan/Wikimedia Commons.