ERWIN — Officials with the National Academy of Sciences working on the first phase of a nationwide study that will examine the cancer risk for people living near nuclear reactors and processing facilities, including Nuclear Fuel Services, were in Erwin on Thursday night to seek public assistance on how to conduct the first portion of the study.
The NAS was approached and commissioned by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission last year to update a 1990 study conducted by the National Institute of Health’s National Cancer Institute that looked at cancer risks for populations in counties with nuclear reactors. That study found no increased risk of death from cancer for people living near nuclear facilities.
The new cancer risk assessment to be conducted by the NAS will examine cancer risks for people living in close proximity to NRC-licensed nuclear reactors and processing facilities across the country. Dr. Kevin Crowley, who will serve as the study’s director, said there are several reasons that NRC officials felt an update to the 1990 study was needed. He said the original study had a primary focus on cancer fatalities rather than incidences, a lack of information on radiation exposure and only examined nuclear facilities operational as of 1982.
“In the study that we’ve been asked to do, we’re looking at the feasibility of looking at the doses that people around the facilities received,” Crowley said. “We’re looking at the feasibility of using not only cancer mortality data, but cancer incidence data, and we’re assessing the feasibility of looking at cancer risks around all of the nuclear power plants and fuel cycle facilities that are licensed by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that are operating today.”
Crowley said the NAS agreed to do the study on the condition that it could be conducted in two phases. The first phase, which is currently under way, is a scoping study in which the committee conducting it is to assess the feasibility for different approaches to carry out the cancer risk assessment itself, Crowley said.
“So what we’re working on now is a methodology study, and the report that we provide to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission will be used to scope Phase 2 and Phase 2 will be the actual risk assessment,” Crowley said. “It will be carried out not by this committee, but by another committee that is appointed to do that specific study.”
Dr. John Burris, president of the Burroughs Wellcome Fund, who is serving on the Phase 1 committee, said the committee completing the phase is made up of around 20 members with a wide array of expertise in various fields. He said the committee’s goal is to have the final report for Phase 1 completed by Dec. 31.
Burris said more than 100 facilities are to be included in the study, so it must be applicable to a broad spectrum.
After providing some information on Phase 1, the floor was opened for public comments and questions.
Although the funding for the cancer-risk assessment comes from the NRC, Burris said neither the NRC nor NFS will have any input into the study, and the NRC cannot confer with the committee or review its report.
“The (NAS) functions as an independent agency, we’re not a part of the federal government,” Burris said. “We try to respond to the questions the sponsors ask ... but as far as the results, we will write the report and present the report.”
However, in response to a question from Trudy Wallack of Greene County, Burris said it will ultimately be the NRC’s decision if it feels a second phase should be completed and funded upon completion of the first phase.
Local resident Buzz Davies questioned the need for the study itself. He said that according to NRC data, NFS has released the equivalent of “a dozen atomic bombs” worth of highly enriched uranium into the environment in the past four decades and that the NRC has failed to properly regulate the Erwin facility over the past 40 years. He also said Unicoi County has “pockets of cancer,” or areas where cancer incidence is higher than in others.
“You know, Hiroshima’s got nothing on us but the thermal blast,” Davies said.
Jonesborough resident Linda Modica said that the incidence of some forms of cancer in areas near NFS is double the state average of those forms in other areas.
Retired NFS employee and Unicoi County resident Eva Whitson said she herself has been diagnosed with cancer and that a number of co-workers and neighbors have either died as a result of or have been diagnosed with cancer. She attributes this to NFS.
“The exposure, I could tell you, was bad,” she said.
NFS and its parent company, Babcock & Wilcox, are currently the subjects of a class-action lawsuit filed by a number of plaintiffs primarily alleging cancer diagnoses and deaths due to the “repeated releases of hazardous and radioactive substances” from NFS. However, NFS has maintained that its effluent releases fall well below regulatory requirements.