Low Level Radiation, High Level Risk

With nuclear energy, the biggest elephant in the room has always been the link to cancer and other diseases from the low level radioactive emissions that routinely spew out of nuclear plants every day.

But under regulations set by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRE) and the powerful political reach of the global nuclear establishment, these emissions are permitted in “allowable” doses under the cover story that they’re as harmless as the background radiation we live with—and survive—every day.

A new national study of cancer around nuclear plants—first announced over three years ago and finally set to get underway early this year—is steeped with conflict of interest and bias. And what the study will show is a very open question.

The NRC initially came under fire when it named a contractor for the Department of Energy to do the study. The DOE, which oversees the country’s nuclear weapons program and weapons production at nuclear sites, has suppressed research that showed harm to nuclear workers from low level radiation exposure. The contractor selected for the study—the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE)—is in Oak Ridge, Tennessee where the DOE operates the Y-2 uranium processing plant.

 “[T]he ‘Institute’ is merely a front for pro-nuclear forces. It has no record of publishing scientific articles on cancer rates near reactors,” Samuel Epstein, a cancer expert and author of The Politics of Cancer, wrote (“Nuclear Power Causes Cancer: What Industry Doesn’t Want You To Know,” Huffington Post, 8/4/09).

Epstein, professor emeritus of Environmental and Occupational Medicine at the University of Illinois, Chicago School of Public, said a “nationwide study of current cancer rates near nukes is sorely needed,” but called for the NRC, “a harsh critic of any suggestion that reactors cause cancer,” to “bow out” of the study.

“For the NRC to be involved with a cancer study of the very reactors they have been regulating for many years—while they steadfastly maintain there is no health risk from routine releases of radioactivity—is a bold conflict of interest,” said Joseph Mangano, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project. Mangano who has published numerous peer-reviewed articles that document increased cancer rates in adults and children living around nuclear plants says his research shows, further, that cancer rates drop when the nuclear plants are shut down.

The NRC cannot “Credibly assess how well its own regulations and oversight are performing,” a citizens group wrote former NRC chair Gregory Jaczko in late 2009 in a letter calling for the study to be turned over to an independent science foundation. The group included the late Dr. Rosalie Bertell, author of No Immediate Danger: Prognosis for a Radioactive Earth, who is internationally recognized for her research on the health risks from low level radiation exposure.

The NRC receives 90 percent of its funding from the nuclear industry through licensing fees, and, at the same time, oversees the regulations it sets for “permissible” radiation exposures from nuclear plants.

It stated further: “NRC should not determine the scope of the study or have the ability to impose certain assumptions that later may not be supported by the data. The history of public radiation impact assessment includes multiple instances where such assumptions have superseded logical findings from real-world data, undercutting any scientific basis for official conclusions.”

Protest over the selection of the DOE contractor was silenced when Massachusetts Congressman Edward Markey stepped in and steered the study over to the National Academy of Science’s Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board (NRSB)—an action taken with no input from activists who have long protested that NAS committees on radiation issues are stacked with people with strong ties to the nuclear industry and the DOE.

“Sadly, Markey didn’t communicate with anyone in our community about what would be better,” said Mary Olsen, Director of the Southwest Office of the Nuclear Information and Resource Service. “There is enormous conflict of interest here. This study should have been a grant to a federal science foundation to which independent researchers applied with proposals for review by a peer group of scientists who made the decision on who does the study.”

The NRC’s switch to NAS quickly turned up new conflict of interest issues over Richard Meserve, a former chair of the NRC then serving as chair of the Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board. Meserve was working for Covington & Burling LLP, a legal firm that serves the nuclear industry when he was appointed NRC chair. (He returned to the firm when he resigned from the NRC three years later). His ties to the industry were raised in a letter to the NRSB from Beyond Nuclear’s Paul Gunter, who requested a conflict of interest review and said Meserve should recuse himself from any role in the cancer study if such a conflict was found. The letter cited his work on the boards of multiple utility companies’ nuclear plants (Unistar Nuclear Energy, Pacific Gas & Electric Company, Luminent Energy).

Meserve recused himself from the study a few weeks later. His said his industry ties had been fully disclosed, but he had “Concluded that I should voluntarily recuse myself from further involvement in the NRC Cancer study” to “avoid a misguided attack on the report” by Gunter, who he believed had raised the issue to “establish the foundation to attack the Academies’ study in the future in the event that it, like the previous study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), ultimately does not advance his cause.”

The history and publication of the flawed NCI study, “Cancer in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities,” which found no increase in cancer rates near reactors, is revealing.

Published in 1990, it is the only federal study of cancer around nuclear plants. At the time, there was already a 40-plus-year history of fears over, and opposition to, nuclear plants resulting from a steady stream of plant safety mishaps and “near misses,” cover-ups of failed safety regulation; the catastrophic meltdown at Three Mile Island in Harrisburg in 1979; the Chernobyl disaster in 1986; and the legacy of deception from lies the public had been told by the NRC’s predecessor agency, the Atomic Energy Commission, that no danger existed from the radioactive fallout from atomic bomb tests and the government’s permitted levels of radiation released from nuclear plants was harmless.

Notably, the NCI study was not initiated by the federal government. It was undertaken through pressure from Senator Edward Kennedy, then chair of the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources. Kennedy, who in 1969 had called for a moratorium on the construction of new nuclear plants until the health issues had been studied, had requested the study from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in 1987, a month after a well-publicized study that was published in the British medical journal, Lancet, revealed a high increase in leukemia in towns surrounding the Pilgrim nuclear plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The Pilgrim study—by Richard Clapp, professor of Environmental Health at Boston University—was published around the same time other reports in England showed increased rates of leukemia in children around nuclear plants.

The 1990 NCI study looked at death rates from cancer around 62 nuclear plants from 1950 to 1984. Upon release, it was criticized for design flaws in the study—and an inherent bias. The study’s authors wrote in their report that they had accepted limits in the study’s design so that it “could be completed in a timeframe that was relatively short for a study of such magnitude.”

The late Dr. Jay Gould, who wrote about the dangers of low level radiation in books and numerous articles, wrote in detail about the flaws in the study in his book, The Enemy Within: The High Cost of Living Near Nuclear Reactors. He said the primary flaw was in defining a very limited number of control counties (107) that would be impacted by radioactive emissions from the nearby reactors that were studied. “Such small samples of the nation’s 3000-odd counties would not be large enough for any divergent mortality trend to prove statistically significant.”

He found the “most flagrant flaw” to be the use of infant mortality rates as one criteria in selecting control counties: “This itself ensures there would be little or no difference in cancer rates, given that infant mortality, as in childhood leukemia, is highly sensitive to low-level radiation exposure as produced by fission products in the milk and diet…This permitted the misleading conclusion that “there is no evidence that an excess occurrence of cancer has resulted from living near a nuclear facility.”

In his new book, Mad Science: The Nuclear Power Experiment (2012), Mangano shows that the bias was signaled at the outset. In responding to Kennedy’s request, then NIH Director James Wyngaarden wrote back: “It is important to stress that useful information about very small health effects, like those associated with very low levels of radiation, is extremely difficult and expensive to obtain.” Mangano writes further: “Another amazing statement made by Wyngaarden that tipped his hand about his bias against finding any radiation-cancer link was the following: ‘The most serious health impact of the Three Mile Island (TMI) accident that can be identified with certainty is mental stress to those living near the plant, particularly pregnant women and families with teenagers and young children’.”

Mangano states there was a “clear effort to relegate any harm from the Three Mile Island meltdown to ‘just stress’.” When the NCI study was released, nearly 12 years after TMI, there had been no medical journal article published on cancer patterns in people living near the reactor. At the same time, 31 articles had been published on psychological and stress issues, 8 of which had been co-authored by Andrew Baum, a psychologist working for the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Information Systems Agency in Arlington, Virginia.

The government ignored calls for a follow-up study to correct the errors in the NCI study. The NRC declared the study to be “its primary resource when communicating with the public about cancer mortality risk in counties that contain or are adjacent to certain nuclear power facilities.”

Announcing the new cancer study last year, the NRC says it is intended as a “modern version” of the 1990 study. It will look at cancer incidence, as well as cancer mortality, which the previous study did not do.

As described on the agency’s website, the study will “help address” the concerns raised “in some communities” over the “potential impact on the health of citizens living near nuclear reactors” from the “very small amounts of radiation” released from nuclear plants. In a clear signal of bias, an NRC staff report (10/5/12) states that “at the low offsite doses from these facilities, researchers would not expect to observe any increased cancer risks” but despite “potential limitations and expected outcomes, the studies would be helpful to address public health concerns and are therefore still worthwhile to pursue.”

The target reactor sites for the pilot study are the Dresden plant in Morris, Illinois, the Millstone plant in Waterford, Connecticut, Oyster Creek in New Jersey, the San Onofre plant in San Clemente, California, two decommissioned plants—Haddam Neck, Connecticut and the Big Rock Point plant, Charlevoix, Michigan—and Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tennessee (which processes nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy).

In late December a federal judge dismissed a class-action lawsuit against Nuclear Fuel Services. The suit claimed “repeated releases of hazardous and radioactive substances” had resulted in various forms of cancer in some of the 140 plaintiffs in the case. A decision to appeal the ruling was pending.


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

Photos/Graphics: Map of operational reactors in the U.S., 2012; Cancer mortality rates.