Federal regulators killed a rigorous examination of cancer in millions of Americans living near nuclear plants because they were convinced the study couldn’t link reactors to disease and would be too costly, newly released records show.
Doubts over the study’s usefulness ran deep at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the agency overseeing America’s aging fleet of nuclear plants. But some study skeptics pushed to save it nonetheless, arguing that modern science could help address public concerns over possible health risks related to the plants. They couldn’t convince their bosses, however, who concluded that the $8 million price tag for the pilot study – which would have examined San Onofre and six other sites – couldn’t be justified.
The previously unreported rift is captured in more than 1,000 pages of NRC documents obtained by Southern California News Group under the Freedom of Information Act. Some officials worried that killing the study would be “a PR fiasco,” reigniting questions about the demise of what some saw as the most significant federal examination of nuclear plant safety in a generation.
The push for this new probe was driven by dissatisfaction with the U.S. government’s reliance on an unsophisticated 27-year-old study – employing even older data – to assure Americans there are no health risks associated with living near nuclear power plants.
Several recent European studies found disturbing links between childhood cancers and kids living close to nuclear plants, and NRC staffers traded emails citing them. A senior agency advisor dismissed the methodology used in those studies. “Publish or perish,” she wrote to her colleagues.
The don’t worry, be happy report
In 2012, the French Institute of Health and Medical Research found that kids living within 3 miles of nuclear power plants had double the risk of developing acute leukemia as those living farther away. The peak impact was on children between the ages of 2 and 4, and the findings echoed those of a German study.
For decades, however, the official opinion of the United States government has been: “From the data at hand, there was no convincing evidence of any increased risk of death from any of the cancers we surveyed due to living near nuclear facilities.”
Which raises the question of the quality of the “data at hand.”
Nationwide, some 116 million people are “nuclear neighbors,” living within 50 miles of a nuclear power plant, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Many remain convinced that the plants are tied somehow to local cancer clusters and other maladies.
Officials from the NAS and NRC heard heartbreaking testimony at public meetings on the study all over the country. “I want to remind you how important it is to protect people from the harmful things that are being put into our environment,” said Sarah Saurer, then 17, who lived near two reactors near Chicago and developed brain cancer at age 7. “I hope that in this study you will remember who you are doing this study for. It is for me and all of the other kids and people who live near nuclear power plants.”
They are not as certain as NRC officials were about the outcome.