Just as nuclear power is enjoying a renaissance under the Obama administration, the industry is battling activists over the question of whether people who live near nuclear plants are at increased risk for cancer -- a fight that it thought had been won long ago.
On April 26, officials at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission requested that the National Academy of Sciences, or NAS, conduct what it calls a state-of-the-art study. Details are currently being worked out between the two agencies. At first, the scientists may conduct what is called a "scoping" study to determine the outline of future research. Final results are years away.
"It's such a huge question," says Michelle Boyd of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which opposes nuclear power, in an interview.
Government Backing for Nuclear Power
The study comes amid the strongest government backing for nuclear energy in decades. When announcing an $8 billion loan guarantee program in February, President Barack Obama said, "Investing in nuclear energy remains a necessary step." Power companies have responded to the president's kind words. The NRC has 13 license applications for 22 nuclear power plants under consideration.
Politicians have many reasons to like nuclear power. Each plant costs billions to build, creating scores of both temporary construction jobs and well-paying permanent jobs. Reactors are also "carbon-free," making them especially attractive as the U.S. seeks to limit greenhouse gas emissions.
The question over whether nuclear power plants are responsible for cancer has been debated for decades, and according to the industry's lobbying arm, the Nuclear Energy Institute, or NEI, studies by a slew of scientific and public health researchers have found no link. The public, though, continues to have doubts, according to Scott Burnell, a spokesman for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.
"It's a question that regularly comes up at NRC public hearings," he says in an interview.
National Cancer Institute Examined Health Risks
Congress asked the National Cancer Institute to examine the issue in the 1980s. The NCI issued a report in 1990 that found no correlation between cancer deaths and nuclear plants. The findings were based on studying more than 900,000 cancer deaths from 1950 to 1984, using mortality records collected from counties that contain nuclear facilities. Activists say that the data is misleading because people who get cancer in one place can move somewhere else and die. Moreover, not everyone who gets cancer dies from it.
The new study, which will examine areas smaller than counties, will take several years to complete and cost several million dollars, according to Burnell.
"The NAS study is under careful scrutiny by everybody," says Paul Gunter of the non-profit Beyond Nuclear, in an interview. "Everybody concurs that a study needs to be done."
Activists claim the cancer link has already been found. A study by the Massachusetts Department of Health in 1990 found a fourfold increase in adult leukemia the closer someone lived or worked to the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. That report didn't stand up to later peer review, says Dave Tarantino, a spokesman for Pilgrim, which is owned by Entergy (ETR).
'The Strongest Study to Date'
"The activists will try and make a lot of hay out of this study," he says.
Gunter, the activist, denies Tarantino's claim, arguing "this is the strongest study to date." A spokeswoman for the Massachusetts Department of Health had no immediate comment.
According to the Nuclear Energy Institute, people living near a nuclear power plant have an average annual exposure of 1/10th of 1 miliram of radiation. A CAT (computer-assisted tomography) scan exposes a person to 1,000 milirams.
The industry, though, welcomes the chance to again prove it is safe and argues that activists who say otherwise have repeatedly been proven wrong.
"We are talking about a very low dose of radiation," says Thomas Kauffman, an NEI spokesman who worked at Three Mile Island for 23 years and was at the plant during the 1979 accident, in an interview. "Right now, it's all speculation when it comes to cancer. "
Nuclear Power Industry Welcomes Health Effects Study