First phase of NRC-commissioned cancer study released

Brad Hicks • Mar 30, 2012 at 1:24 PM

ERWIN — Last fall, officials with the National Academy of Sciences paid a visit to Erwin to discuss the first phase of a nationwide study that will assess the cancer risk for people residing near Nuclear Regulatory Commission-licensed nuclear reactors and processing facilities, which would include Nuclear Fuel Services.

On Thursday, the report detailing the study’s first phase was released.

In 2010, the NAS was commissioned by the NRC to update a 1990 study completed by the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute that examined cancer risks for populations in counties with nuclear reactors. The results of the more than 20-year-old study found no increased risk of death from cancer for people living near nuclear facilities.

The study would assess cancer risks of populations near 104 nuclear reactors and 13 fuel cycle facilities licensed by the NRC across the U.S.

Dr. Kevin Crowley, the study’s director, previously said the NAS agreed to complete the newly commissioned study on the condition that it could be conducted in two phases. The nearly 400-page Phase I report released Thursday outlines the scientific approaches that researchers would use to carry out a full-scale cancer risk assessment and the challenges they would face in doing so.

The committee that completed the report recommended two approaches to the cancer risk study, which could be carried out by the study’s research council as the second phase of the study. The first approach would be to have researchers investigate rates of cancer occurrence and cancer deaths in small geographic areas within approximately a 30-mile radius of nuclear facilities.

“A study zone of this size would incorporate both the most potentially exposed as well as essentially unexposed regions to be used for comparison purposes,” the report states.

The second approach recommended would be the conducting of a record-based, case-control study to assess the association of cancers in children less than 15 years old in relation to their mothers’ residential proximity to a nuclear facility during pregnancy.

“The study period for individual facilities should be based on the quality and availability of cancer registration in each state,” the report said. “Controls born within the same 50-kilometer (30-mile) radius as the cases should be selected from birth records to match cases on birth year at a minimum.”

Both of these approaches would include sub-analysis focusing on leukemia, a form of cancer associated with radiation exposure in children.

Challenges in carrying out a full-scale study outlined in the report include uneven availability and quality data on cancer mortality and incidence at geographic levels smaller than the county level and uneven availability of data on the amount of radiation released from nuclear facilities. Those conducting the study could also face finding limited information on population mobility and potential confounding factors, such as cigarette smoke, access to health care, contact with toxic chemicals and exposure to other radiation sources such as medical scans, according to the report.

“Doses resulting from monitored and reported radioactive effluent releases from nuclear facilities are expected to be low,” the report states. “As a consequence, epidemiology studies of cancer risk in populations near nuclear facilities may not have adequate statistical power to detect the presumed small increases in cancer risks arising from these monitored and reported releases.”

“Finding scientific evidence of whether people who live near nuclear facilities have a greater risk of developing cancer than those who live farther away is a challenge,” John Burris, chair of the committee that wrote the report and president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, said in a release.

“There are issues of whether scientists can get the information needed to carry out the study. For example, some state cancer registries have only recently attained quality data. Also, data may be insufficient to estimate the amount of radioactive material released from nuclear facilities, especially during early years of operations. This makes it much more difficult to determine risks from decades ago when radiation releases from nuclear facilities were larger.”

It will now be up to the NRC to determine if it wants to carry out the study’s second phase. But before the second phase is initiated should the NRC decide to go that route, the committee completing the report has recommended that a pilot study be completed to examine the feasibility of carrying out a large-scale cancer risk study. This pilot study would look at the time, costs and resources necessary to complete a larger study. The committee suggested the pilot study focus on six nuclear power plants and one fuel cycle facility that provide a board a representation of plant designs and operating histories. The fuel cycle facility recommended in the report was Nuclear Fuel Services.

“The NRC appreciates the efforts of the NAS staff and the expert panel in assembling their findings and recommendations,” NRC Public Affairs Officer Joey Ledford said. “Once the public comments are in, we’ll consider the recommendations carefully before we decide on any next steps.”

NFS President Joseph Henry previously said NFS officials would welcome the Erwin facility’s inclusion in the NAS cancer risk study.

“We think this is an important study, and we’re very pleased that it’s going to be done by an organization such as the National Academy of Sciences. They’re known for their independence, and we welcome an objective and scientific approach to the subject,” Henry said last year.

The Phase I report can be found in its entirety at http://bit.ly/Hl0WUv. Starting Sunday, a 60-day public comment period on the report will open. Comments can be submitted via email to crs@nas.edu or via fax to 202-334-3077. These comments will be placed in the project’s public access file, which can be made available to the public upon request.

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