Low Level Radiation, High Level Risk


What can we learn from a new study of cancer risks around nuclear plants that we don’t already know? The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spins its new pilot study—now underway in partnership with the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) around seven reactor communities—as an effort to reassure the public that the radiation routinely released from nuclear plants into local environments is no threat to children and other living things because it is well within the limits permitted by the federal government.

Still, the NRC acknowledges there is concern “in some communities” over potential health risks from chronic exposure to these day-to-day releases, and the NRC staff encouraged the study: “…as recent international studies indicate, epidemiology studies can be an important tool for allaying public health concerns…”

You might think from such a statement that living around a nuclear plant is no more hazardous to your health than living near a state park. In fact, recent international studies are profoundly alarming and for independent scientists—i.e. no ties to the nuclear industry or nuclear-friendly regulators—they raise urgent questions: “Should pregnant women and young children be advised to move away from nuclear plants?  Should local residents eat vegetables from their gardens? And, crucially, shouldn’t those governments around the world who are planning to build more reactors think again?” (“Increased Cancers Near Nuclear Plants,” Ian Fairlie, New Scientist, 4/24/08.)        

In France, a study published last year found a 50 percent greater risk of acute childhood leukemia for young children living within three miles of a nuclear plant (“Childhood leukemia around French nuclear power plants, The Geocap study, 2002–2007,” International Journal of Cancer, January 2012).

In the U.S., UK, Canada, France, Germany, and Spain, a meta-analysis of 17 cancer studies of childhood leukemia around 136 nuclear plants showed a 14 to 21 percent increase of leukemia in children under 9 and an increase in leukemia death rates from 5 to 24 percent, depending on how close the child lived to the plant (“Meta-analysis of standardized incidence and mortality rates of childhood leukaemia in proximity to nuclear facilities,” European Journal of Cancer Care, 2007).

In Germany, a study around all of the country’s nuclear plants showed that young children faced more than double the risk of leukemia if they lived within three miles of a plant. The study showed an undisputable link between the distance from a plant to the rate of unexpected cancer cases—the closer to the plant, the higher the rate of malignancy (“Leukaemia in young children living in the vicinity of German nuclear power plants,” International Journal of Cancer Care, 2008).

No one can take the nuclear industry to court on the basis of these studies because they do not link the excess malignancies found in the studies to the radiation from nearby plants, most often on the basis that doses were too low to produce such results. But, as Fairlie and others point out, the studies show powerful evidence of an association (the German government accepted the association found in the German study) at the same time they raise red flags over the flawed risk models used to calculate radiation dose estimates.

Studies may conclude that results “remain unexplained,” as the German study did, stating that the radiation would have needed to be several orders of magnitude higher than the dose estimate used in the study to account for the study’s alarming results. But, says Fairlie, “the models used to estimates radiation doses from sources emitted from nuclear facilities are riddled with uncertainty,” according to the finding in a 2004 report from the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters, which was set up by the British government and of which Fairlie was a member.

Radiation risks are based on an “unsatisfactory dataset”—the survivors of the two atomic bombs the U.S. detonated over Japan in 1945. “Though relevant for estimating the risks of sudden blasts of powerful types of radiation, this data is irrelevant for slow, long-term exposures or for weaker types of radiation which are more common. And many studies point to the risks being higher than this data suggests” (Fairlie, “The risks of nuclear energy are not exaggerated,” the Guardian, 1/19/10).

In Germany, cancer studies around nuclear plants have been ongoing since the 1980s when a children’s leukemia cluster was found around a nuclear plant outside of Hamburg. For nearly two decades citizen groups and the German affiliate of the International Physicians to Prevent Nuclear War (IPPNW) waged a campaign demanding a government-sponsored study around all of Germany’s nuclear plants.

The protest produced over 10,000 letters to the government and, in 2002, an investigation of childhood cancer began around all 16 of the country’s plants. It is the largest such study ever done and its “power and scientific significance is unique in radiation epidemiology,” stated Rudi Nussbaum, Professor Emeritus of Physics and Environmental Sciences at Portland State University, (“Childhood Leukemia and Cancers Near German Nuclear Reactors,” International Journal of Occupational and Environmental Health, July 2009).

Widely covered in the German press—and criminally underreported in the U.S. which has the world’s largest base of nuclear power plants in operation—the study confirmed an indisputable link between leukemia incidence and living around a nuclear plant.

Nussbaum warned, “the ramifications of the German study add to the urgency of a policy debate regarding the high toll exacted in public health for nuclear power production.”         

The study’s research team concluded: “The result was not to be expected under current radiation-epidemiological knowledge. Considering that there is no evidence of relevant accidents and that possible confounders could not be identified, the observed positive distance trend remains unexplained” (“Leukaemia in young children living in the vicinity of German nuclear power plants,” International Journal of Cancer Care, 2008). But Nussbaum reported the result was not “unexplained” for a government-appointed study review panel (which included three epidemiologists from the original study team).

In its report, the panel criticized the study’s researchers for “ignoring relevant and statistically robust studies consistent with an association of residential proximity to nuclear installations with childhood malignancies.” The panel found, in fact, the study did “suggest a causal relationship between radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants and the undisputable positive trend of childhood malignancy incidence with decreasing residential distance from these plants.” The panel’s conclusion: “There exists no plausible alternative hypothesis.”

Like Fairlie, Nussbaum raised red flags over the “current radiation-epidemiological knowledge” that drives “official” studies done in wake of nuclear disasters (“Chernobyl, Ukraine, 1986”; “Three Mile Island, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, 1979). He points to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which published “report after report with estimated numbers of Chernobyl victims that are orders of magnitude smaller than those observed and documented” in “Chernobyl: Consequences of the Catastrophe for People and the Environment” by Alexey Yablokov et al. (Annals of the NY Academy of Sciences, 2009) and summarized in Health Effects of Cher- nobyl, a 2011 report issued by the IPPNW.

Nussbaum continued: “The international radiation health science establishments, such as IAEA or ICRP, many of whose members are solidly enmeshed with nuclear arms and nuclear energy production, have for decades deliberately ignored observed detriment from radioactive emissions. Their estimates of the public health impact from environmental radioactivity are based on partially outdated and flawed theoretical models that had been developed decades ago to quantify the effects of exposures to external radiation, such as those suffered by the Japanese A-bomb survivors. In agencies that are mandated to protect public health a mindset that denies reality is intolerable” (“Clinging to the Nuclear Option,” CounterPunch, 5/20/11).

There is absolutely no reason to be treating any of this as controversial and every reason to believe what John Gofman said years back that we know enough to know that nuclear energy is mass random premeditated murder. “We know enough to know that we should be phasing this form of energy out,” said Mary Olson, Southwest Director of the Nuclear Information and Research Service.

In the late 1960s, Dr. John Gofman (1918-2007) raised dire warnings about the government’s permitted releases from nuclear plants. While serving as director of the radiation and human health research program at the Atomic Energy Commission’s Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, he and his colleague, Arthur Tamplin, published research showing that an estimated 32,000 Americans would die each year from fatal cancers induced by the “allowable” releases.

In an interview years later, Gofman said: “I realized that the entire nuclear power program was based on a fraud—namely that there was a ‘safe’ amount of radiation, a permissible dose that wouldn’t hurt anybody. There is no safe threshold. If this truth is known, then any permitted radiation is a permit to commit murder.”

Cancer Plague in Burke County, Georgia

I’ve had so many funerals I’m known as the burying preacher,” laments Reverend Charles Utley, a Baptist preacher in Burke County, Georgia. His parish serves the Shell Bluff community where two nuclear reactors on the banks of the Savannah River have discharged radioactive pollution into the air and water since the late 1980s.“There’s a spread of cancer around here from the young to the old. Right now I have three parishioners with cancer and one stroke victim. And I’m not talking about a huge congregation. I’m doing good to have 50 or 60 members on a given Sunday.”

Directly across the river from Plant Vogtle is the infamous Savannah River site. Known locally as “the old bomb plant,” 5 reactors on the site produced plutonium and tritium for the U.S. nuclear weapons stockpile, leaving 37 million gallons of high-level radioactive waste stored in underground tanks—many leaking. Tritium production and other nuclear operations continue and radioactive contamination of the river and its tributaries is well documented. The cancer mortality rate in the county is the highest in the state.

Two years ago, residents living around Plant Vogtle formed the Concerned Citizens of Shell Bluff to oppose Southern Company’s expansion, now underway, to put two more nuclear reactors on the site. In a report to a federal panel, Utley called for suspension of site construction until the cancers in Burke County were investigated. “Whether the plague in Shell Bluff is caused by pollution from the old SRS bomb plant or from Vogtle’s reactors, it is imperative that before any additional nuclear power plants are constructed, state and federal agencies must determine the cause,” the report said.

A 2007 study found the death rate in Burke County from all cancers increased by 25 percent after the Vogtle reactors came online—infant deaths soared 71 percent. A study by the University of South Carolina found a higher than average instance of cervical cancer in black women and a higher rate of esophageal cancer in black men within a 50 mile radius of Plant Vogtle.

Test results from environmental monitoring around Plant Vogtle showed that from 1995 to 2002, Vogtle was the source of 2 to 50 times the elevations of radionuclides in sediment, river water, drinking water, and river fish. The monitoring was conducted by the Georgia Environmental Protection Division under a grant from the Department of Energy, which terminated the grant in 2004. The fight to restore funding has been ongoing ever since.

 “The damage from losing that program is incalculable because it showed a trail of radiation contamination,” said Lou Zeller, science director for the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League. “We knew there was radiation released downstream from the Vogtle plant and how much it was, and in detail—now we don’t have that,” he said.

 “It was valuable data, but it was harmful to the interests of the power companies—Southern Company and Westinghouse—and that’s why the plug was pulled,” Zeller said.

Utley isn’t predicting what impact the NRC’s pilot study will have, but he does know that Plant Vogtle isn’t included in the study and that no agency has yet investigated the health epidemic in Burke County. “This is a burden on people medically and people lose hope when they see nothing is being done for them. We were told nuclear power is safe, but if it’s so safe, why is our cancer rate getting higher and higher?”

“It’s outrageous that Vogtle is not included in this study,” said Zeller. “There is known radioactive contamination coming from the bomb plant and every nuclear power plant, on a regular basis. So why is there no study here? Unless it’s the NRC once again being the lapdog for the nuclear industry—and the intent is to produce a study that shows nothing. Having a study which shows nothing is more valuable to them that not having a study.”

The State Blew Them Away

My community has been scarred by the level of suffering and disease that has taken place. There are still people in the valley with many problems, but those problems are coming up over time. The mutations that wind up turning into cancer can take 5 years, 10 years, or 20 years—and they don’t have a big R that says ‘radiation.’ This is part of the struggle in terms of any kind of study of impacted communities.” Deb Katz is founder and executive director of Citizens Awareness Network (CAN), an anti-nuclear watchdog with 4,000 members throughout the Northeast. CAN fought an 8-year battle to force the Massachusetts Department of Health (MDPH) to investigate health problems that became evident in the early 1990s around the Yankee Rowe nuclear plant in the Deerfield River Valley.

The Rowe plant operated from 1960 to 1992 and, unknown to residents at the time, had discharged radioactive waste into the river for over 30 years—a river that winds through the many towns in the valley. Popular for recreational activities, it also provided well water to homes and schools and in times of drought was used for crop irrigation on farmland adjacent to the river.

CAN’s battle with state health officials began after several mothers with children with Down’s syndrome sought help from the group after failing to get a response from the state. “They had contacted the state over their concerns but experienced the state as blowing them off,” Katz said.

CAN sought and received pro bono help from outside experts including Dr. Sidney J. Cobb, an epidemiologist who helped set up the state’s cancer registry. His analysis of raw health data showed a 50 percent greater mortality from cancer, a 40 percent greater mortality from heart disease and “suggestive evidence” for an excess in Down’s syndrome.

 “His report made the state feel it had to look at the issues,” Katz said. But it then took the MDPH eight years to complete an initial study. “In the end, the state found statistical significance for certain cancers, but didn’t connect the results to the radiation. The health people we worked with certainly felt there was a correlation, but the state wouldn’t acknowledge it,” Katz said.

CAN subsequently investigated the Rowe reactor’s waste discharges into the river and later produced a report on tritium showing that massive amounts of tritium contaminated the river. “During the 1960s and early 70s, the reactor had problems with faulty fuel rods and dumped 1,800 curies of tritium a year into the river, which were nominally within NRC guidelines. People in the community were generally unaware that the river was radioactive, although it had been noted that since the reactor opened, the river never froze,” the report states.

CAN’s role in forcing the health study and documenting radioactive releases was helpful to the victims living in the valley who contracted cancer, Katz believes.“Whenever someone gets cancer, there’s always this self examination of ‘what did I do wrong.’ What we were able to give to the families was the sense that what had happened to them was not their fault, that there were things that had profoundly effected them that were outside their control.”  (CAN’s report, “The Carcinogenic, Mutagenic, Tera-togenic, and Trans mutational Effects of Tritium,” nukebusters.org.)

ACE Anticipates A Cover-Up

It wasn’t until Dr. Lewis Cuthbert and his wife, Donna, began raising questions about health problems in their community that they learned the nuclear plant they see from their living room window releases “permitted” doses of radioactivity into their local environment.

Residents, alarmed over rising cancers and infant deaths in a group of counties around Exelon Corporation’s Limerick nuclear plant in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, had suspected a possible link between radiation and cancer, but it wasn’t until they brought in a health researcher to speak to the community that their suspicions were confirmed.

“We had no idea we were being exposed to radiation from Limerick until she came here and explained to us how nuclear plants work. That’s the first we knew they can release radiation into the air and water—and also that there is no safe level of exposure,” said Donna Cuthbert.

The Cuthberts lead the Alliance for a Clean Environment (ACE), a grassroots group based in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. For over ten years, ACE has investigated, documented, and promoted community education on environmental pollution in the tri-county area in eastern Pennsylvania that includes the Limerick plant.

Last year, ACE submitted 1,000 pages of health studies and supporting data to the NRC in a request for a public hearing on the health impact from Limerick’s emissions. “We wanted the hearing to be held as part of any review for relicensing this plant, but we got no response from the NRC,” said Donna Cuthbert. “They won’t look at health issues at all.”

The data included a series of cancer studies conducted by the Montgomery County Health Department, the Pennsylvania Health Department, and independent researcher, Joseph Man- gano, director of the Radiation and Public Health Project.

The studies found higher rates of childhood cancer, notably leukemia, in communities around Limerick than in other areas of the state. All studies were based on data from the state’s Cancer Registry and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta.

 “By the late 1980s, our childhood cancer rates were 35 higher than the national average, by the early 1990s they were 60 percent higher, and then by the late 1990s, they were over 92 percent higher,” Cuthbert said.

In 2010, Mangano, who has documented increases in cancers around many U.S. nuclear plants in a series of published studies, reported an epidemic of thyroid cancer in the 90-mile radius around eastern Pennsylvania, central New Jersey, and southern New York. Sixteen nuclear reactors operate in the area covered by the study.

The study found that Pennsylvania had the highest rate of thyroid cancer of any state and that the rates were highest in the eastern part of the state, which has nine nuclear plants, the highest concentration in the country.

“Our children also had some of the highest levels of strontium-90 in their teeth,” Cuthbert said. ACE led the local effort to collect baby teeth for the Tooth Fairy Project, conducted by the Radiation Public Health Project. It began in the 1990s under former director Dr. Jay Gould, author of The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors. It tested for levels of strontium-90 in baby teeth and remains the only study conducted showing in-body radiation of U.S. citizens living around nuclear plants, Mangano said.

Strontium-90 (Sr-90) is one of the most dangerous radionuclides produced in nuclear plant operations and atomic bomb tests. Known as a “bone-seeker,” it has the same chemical structure as calcium. It is deposited in bones and teeth and penetrates bone marrow, making it a risk for all cancers and immune related disorders.

The baby tooth study, published in 2003, found that Sr-90 levels in the tri-county area had risen 21 percent during the 1990s and were 34 percent higher than in the rest of Philadelphia. Notably, the study also found that the increased levels were followed three years later by rises in cancer in children under 10.

Both the NRC and the Nuclear Energy Institute, the industry’s Washington-based lobbying group, dismiss Man- gano’s study, claiming that the Sr-90 is leftover fallout from U.S. bomb testing in the 1950s and 1960s. Mangano counters: “If it was bomb tests, how could these levels only be found near nuclear plants and how could they be rising over time?”

 “We have no doubt the NRC is doing this cancer study to provide cover for the nuclear industry and produce a study that comes up with inconclusive results, muddies the water, and confuses the public,” said Cuthbert. “There’s plenty of evidence out there that shows nuclear plants cause cancer. ACE anticipates a cover-up.”

Will the NAS Do Science?

The NRC is infested with conflict of interest issues and shouldn’t be near a cancer study involving nuclear plants. As Utley reported to the federal panel, citing the impact of “permitted” radiation releases in his own cancer plagued community, “Federal regulations don’t prevent radiation exposure, they sanction it.”

But what about the NAS? The NRC handed the work of the cancer study over to the National Academy of Sciences when the protest got too loud over its first selection: a pro-nuclear front group in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the DOE operates a nuclear weapons plant.

The NAS is funded by federal agencies that request research. It claims independence from outside influence but decades back Philip Boffey’s book, The Brain Bank of America: An Inquiry into the Politics of Science, showed how corporate influence inside the NAS corrupts its science. One notable chapter, “The Academy vs. Rachel Carson,” detailed attacks on Carson’s Silent Spring that came from a committee “under the control of the very agricultural and industrial interests which were promoting the use of pesticides…key committee were her most vociferous critics in the science community.

Rosalie Bertell’s No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth cites NAS silence on radiation hazards: “The NAS never addressed the problems of nuclear fallout from above-ground weapons testing. It has never played a lead role in nuclear reactor safety or occupational exposure problems in this industry…. [It] convened the BEIR I, II, and III committees to silence dissenters from the prevailing opinion on the hazard of low level radiation.

More recently, newer BEIR (Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation) panels and committees of the NAS Board on Radioactive Waste Management were stacked with members with strong ties to the nuclear industry and the DOE. (“Controversial History of Radiation Epidemiology and Risk Estimation,” NIRS.org.) “There are many NAS problems in the past with radiation issues,” said Mary Olson, who noted that “it took a full scale attack from the grassroots level to improve the BEIR VII panel because they had put people on it who were very, closely associated with the nuclear industry.”

Olson researched NIRS’s Briefing Paper, “Atomic Radiation is More Harmful to Women,” that drew from data deep inside the BEIR VII report, but was not brought out in the text. The data, which has significant implications for radiation protection standards based on a “Standard Man,” showed that women are at 50 percent greater risk of radiation-induced cancer than a man who gets the same dose.

 “Our role with the NAS is to say, ‘do science,’” Olson said. “We do not have a true independent analysis going on here with the NRC/NAS study. Right now what we have is an industry lapdog hiring its own quote-unquote ‘watchdog’.” However, Olson points to the role of public interest groups who worked with due diligence to influence protocols for the current study and believe they had some influence. “People are dying and if there is any way to get the impacted communities documented while they’re still there, it’s very important.”

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 John Raymond is a freelance writer based in New York City.