The last time federal officials assessed cancer rates in the communities surrounding nuclear power plants, they concluded that radiation releases were insignificant and health risks, if any, were too small to measure.
TheU.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has been relying on the results of that 1990 National Cancer Institute study ever since to inform the public about cancer risks posed by the 104 licensed reactors it governs nationwide.
Now, in response to growing concerns that using uranium in the production of electrical energy may be dangerous even without accidents, the NRC is trying to decide if it should launch one of the largest epidemiological studies ever conducted to determine if it is a health risk to live near a nuclear facility — such as the San Onofre plant in north San Diego County.
Another motivation for wanting to revisit the issue is that recent epidemiological studies in Germany and France found that children living near certain nuclear reactors were twice as likely to develop leukemia.
In the United States, about 1 million people live within five miles of operating nuclear plants, and more than 45 million live within 30 miles, nuclear regulatory officials said.
“The implications of this study could be profound,” said Roger Johnson, a retired neuroscience professor and member of the nonprofit environmental group San Clemente Green. “If it finds higher cancer risks at one or more nuclear power plants, there will be enormous public pressure to shut down all of them.”
Laguna Beach environmental activist Marion Pack, however, expressed mixed feelings about the proposal. “An epidemiological study might answer some questions about long-term effects, but it would take millions of dollars and years to complete,” she said. “I’d rather see that time and money spent on dealing with immediate concerns such as the possibility of radiation exposure in the event of an earthquake or an accident.”
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