NRC Blocks Cancer Study Near San Onofre and other Nuclear Power Plants

Nuclear Waste Dump 2014 -

Do the regular radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants (NPP) increase the risk of cancer? No one knows for sure whether living near a NPP can cause cancer, but on Sept. 8 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) terminated a study designed to find out.  It would have been carried out by the prestigious National Academy of Sciences which spent 5 years planning the study.

One of the six locations chosen for study was our own San Onofre. The medical records of everyone living within 31 miles of San Onofre (a circle from Huntington Beach around to Solana Beach) would have been part of the study. The research proposal is entitled Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations near Nuclear Facilities.


The NRC logo is “Protecting People and the Environment” but many wonder if it should read “Protecting the Nuclear Industry and Its Profits.”

The NRC said it could not afford the $8 million, but no one swallows this since the NRC has an annual budget of over $1 billion (90 percent  of which comes from the industry it is supposed to be regulating).

The NRC also said that it already knows the answer: low-level radiation coming from NPP is harmless. It continues to cite a now thoroughly discredited study by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) which examined this issue a quarter of a century ago and failed to find cancer streaks. The nuclear industry prefers this study because it likes the results.

We now know that the NCI study failed because it studied only cancer deaths, not incidence, and it studied only where people died, not where they lived or worked. It also averaged people living very near a NPP with those who lived far away. Also worrisome are recent studies in Europe which discovered that children who live near a NPP double their risk of cancer. The NAS is well-aware of this and designed part of the study to focus on children.

Instead of treating cancer as a scientific issue, the nuclear industry treats it as a PR challenge. Frequent attempts are made to trivialize the dangers of radiation. Often this involves the Radiation- Is-Everywhere tactic complete with ludicrous examples (“It’s just like eating a banana,” or “It’s just like flying to Denver”). They like to show how little radiation is in an average X-ray but they are careful not to mention that radioactive exposure is cumulative: every dose adds. Since Edison has been ejecting radiation into the atmosphere and ocean regularly for almost a half-century, the total accumulation of even low-level radiation could be a serious health hazard.

The idea that there are thresholds below which radiation is harmless was put to rest by the 2007 report of the National Research Council entitled Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (better known as the BEIR VII Report). It concluded that there is a linear relationship between radiation dose and cancer-causing cell damage and that there is no such thing as a threshold below which radiation is harmless. This Linear No Threshold model is now settled science.

Do people in California get cancer? According to the California Dept. of Public Health, 1.3 million Californians today have a history of cancer. In 2013, there were 144,800 new cases and 55,485 cancer deaths. About one out of four deaths in California are caused by cancer (about 152 per day) and cancer is the leading cause of death in children.

Radiation is known to adversely affect cell DNA and can lead to a host of medical problems. But causation is difficult to prove because there are many causes of cancer and health effects may not be manifested for years or even decades. In Japan, thousands of people continue to die every year, not from old age, but from medical complications caused by the radiation they received as children in August of 1945 when they lived outside of Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

The dirty little secret of the nuclear industry is that all NPP regularly discharge radiation into the environment. Nuclear power plants cannot operate without these discharges, and the NRC sets standards for what is allowable. They have instituted a motivational and aspirational standard called ALARA which means: As Low as Reasonably Achievable. They set limits of discharge based on estimates of how much radiation can be tolerated by the average statistical adult male even though we know that women, children, and the human fetus are far more vulnerable. Their regulations carefully state what is allowable, not what is safe. The real question should be what is safe, not what is permissible by the NRC. No one knows for sure what is safe which is why the cancer study was proposed in the first place.

San Onofre has been ejecting gaseous radionuclides into the atmosphere since 1968. They have also pumped large quantities of low-level effluent radioactive waste into the ocean through their giant pipes 18 ft. in diameter (normal flow rate is a million gallons/minute). Many do not realize that these emissions continue even after the reactors were shut down in January of 2012. In 2012 (after shutdown), there were 335.1 hours of liquid effluent releases. The longest one went on continuously for 28 hours and discharged 1.031 billion gallons into the ocean. Those who enjoyed the ocean that day will never know because discharge days are kept secret.

What’s next? Unless another agency such as the EPA rescues the study, the research will never be conducted. Although there have been howls of protest across the country, people are up against a nuclear industry which is rich, powerful, and politically connected. Even the media in this area are afraid to cover the story with the exception of excellent reporting by Teri Sforza of the Orange County Register. Those who are concerned should immediately contact their representatives in Congress and demand that the National Academy of Science study be rescued, perhaps by another government agency such as the EPA.

Meanwhile, the Coastal Commission just approved Edison’s plan to begin construction of a massive concrete graveyard for high-level nuclear waste. They will bury thousands of tons of high-level radioactive waste in thin canisters that are guaranteed for only 10 years. The site will be a bluff on the edge of the Pacific Ocean a few hundred feet from I-5 half-way between the Los Angeles and San Diego metropolitan areas where over 8 million people live.

The nuclear industry likes to call this “spent fuel” which actually means that the profitability of the fuel is spent. This uranium and plutonium will remain lethal for millions of years. It has the radioactive equivalent of thousands of nuclear weapons. The entire venture is experimental in nature and is not based on proven technology. Instead, it relies on “vaporware” which means technology they hope to develop in the future. For example, there is no current technology to detect radiation leaks before they occur and no known way to fix them after they occur. The “plan” calls for these casks to remain at San Onofre until 2049 when they hope the government will take them away. There is currently no place for the casks and no plan to take them anywhere. Due to the corrosive salt environment they may become too fragile to move even if a place is found where the locals are willing to accept it. Opposition in this area is ignored because those who lived here in the 1960s agreed to the facility.

It is pretty clear why Edison and the NRC keep harping on their PR mantra that safety is their number one priority. What else can you do when all your plans are really risky? But actions speak louder than words. The push by the nuclear industry to block cancer research demonstrates their true colors. The plan to store tons of high-level nuclear waste in a densely populated area vulnerable to earthquakes, tsunamis, and terrorist attacks makes a mockery out of the logo: “Protecting People and the Environment.”



The author is a retired neuroscience professor living in San Clemente.

Voice of OC is interested in hearing different perspectives and voices. If you want to weigh in on this issue please contact Voice of OC Engagement Editor Julie Gallego at

  • Marty Goodman

    Calling this article “yellow journalism” would be too kind. If I were to descend to the hysteria-mongering and unsupported conspiracy theory presented by the author, I would accuse him of being in the pay of the fossil fuel industry. But I won’t, even tho he is doing their work for them. For it’s possible the author sincerely believes the many outrageous falsehoods he is telling here, and it’s frankly unlikely he’s taking their money (tho no doubt he’s swallowed whole some of the propaganda big coal, oil, and gas have sponsored).

    Bottom line: There is hardly a word of truth in this article.

    I know. I’m a physician and scientist (who has never been associated remotely with the “nuclear power industry”), a life long environmentalist, and a life long fighter for social justice, the public’s health, and rational attitudes toward medicine and science. I have never worked for or in the nuclear power (or other nuclear technology) industry.


    (1) The Linear No Threshold hypothesis (the notion that any amount of radiation is dangerous, no matter how little, and all is cumulative) was given its biggest boost by what is now proven to be deliberately falsified data by Herman Mueller. Far from being “proven and accepted”, as claimed by the author of this article, it’s for the most part proven to be bunk in study after study.

    (2) The amount of added radiation and to which the population is exposed near a normally operating nuclear power plant put into the environment is 1/10 or less that of background radiation. AT the same time, we know that in areas where the radiation background is up to 50 times higher than it is in most places, there is not any increase in radiation related cancer in the populations, studied for generations. Given that, the NRC was quite right to not piss $8 million down the drain in an obviously unjustified and worthless study.

    (3) The hysterical reference to “thousands” of cancers caused in atomic bomb survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is pure bunk. In fact, responsible studies have demonstrated a 5% to 11% increase in possibly radiation related cancer in survivors over the years, amount to under 1000 cases. This is for people exposed to doses of radiation 1000 to 100,000 greater than that which “leaks” out of nuclear power plants. Not to mention the fact that those exposed to radiation from atomic bombs were exposed to neutron fluxes… something that is not a factor with exposure to radioactive material that comes out of a nuclear reactor. Making such exposure not comparable to only exposure to radioactive elements. Additionally, studies show that the was NO measurable increase in birth defects in survivors years later.


    These are just three of the outright gross falsehoods this article offers.

    Now, it’s possible (as I wrote above) the author is ignorant and gullible enough to believe the falsehoods mentioned above, which he wrote. So I won’t use the word “lie” in reference to them.

    But his writing in this article veers toward either unimaginable ignorance of scientific method and scientific integrity for a neuroscience professor, or something that sure looks like deliberate deceit, when he writes:

    “The dirty little secret of the nuclear industry is that all NPP regularly discharge radiation into the environment. Nuclear power plants cannot operate without these discharges, and the NRC sets standards for what is allowable. ”

    Sounds pretty scary, huh? But wait… does he include here… or anywhere else in the rest of his hysteria-mongering paragraph… any information on the actual amounts and levels of radiation released? On changes in measured radiation at various distances from the plant from background levels?

    No. Because this “discharge” amounts to 1/1000 th or less of the amount of radiation that is associated with ANY medical harm. And because, contrary to his utterly false claim, radiation exposure at those low levels is proven to NOT be cumulative, and increase anyone’s risk of disease.

    The failure to include any information by which a rational knowledgeable person could assess risk, then screaming “danger!”, is classic hysteria-mongering and yellow journalism.

    There’s a more serious problem with this article than anything I mentioned above. The author conveniently does nothing to attempt to compare human and environmental and global warming risks of nuclear power to the one other means available of generating 24/7/365 reliable electrical power: fossil fuel.

    There’s a reason for this. He is not interested in presenting the medical and scientific and environmental and public health issues involved in nuclear power compared to those in competing technologies. He only wishes to push an an ideologically driven, anti-nuclear (regardless of facts) radiation-o-phobic agenda.

    Fact: tens of thousands die as a result of coal mining and coal burning to produce electricity every years. NO ONE dies of radiation effects of nuclear power plants in the course of a year.

    To make a given amount of electricity (around one exa-watt-hr) 4000 people die when coal is used. 1 person dies making that amount when nuclear power is used. Nuclear fuel, being many millions of times more energy dense than coal, means mining it has trivial effects on the environment, compared to mining fossil fuel. Ten men with shovels can in one day dig enough thorium ore to power a nuclear plant that supplies all the electricity the city of Boston needs for ONE YEAR.

    The record of nuclear power over the last 50 years is overwhelming: It is a 1000 and more times cleaner and safer means of making electricity than fossil fuel. New generation nuclear power plants being devised and constructed now are going to be safer, still… and up to 200 times as efficient in using nuclear fuel… with enough fuel to make all the electricity we’ll need for the next 2000 to 10,000 years known to be available. THAT’s what I call a “sustainable” power source. Not only that, but new generation plant designs will produce 1/200 th the amount of radioactive waste, of a sort that is safe after 300 years, not 30,000 years. AND can use as part of its fuel the long term waste from old generation reactors, make electricity from it, and put out 1/200 the volume of waste that is safe after 300 years. So much for the hysterical comments about nuclear waste in that article, which are as much a combination of falsehood and mis-direction as the other material I’ve addressed in more detail.

    As the experience of Germany and Denmark over the last 20 years showed clearly, trying to replace fossil fuel with solar and wind power is an absurd farce. In that time Germany, forsaking nuclear power, has had to build new coal plants, and many new natural gas plants, to provide power during the 70+% of the time you can’t get power from wind or solar. In the years since trying to “go green” and no nuclear, Germany has NOT significantly lowered its CO2 output. And has increased its dependence on fossil fuel by building many new fossil fuel plants. But FRANCE, going 70% to 80% nuclear for electricity in that time, has cut CO2 emissions IN HALF.

    The author repeatedly indulges in (utterly unsupported by a shred of documentation) conspiracy theory about the NRC and the “Nuclear Industry”, ascribing to the “Nuclear Industry” immense power and control. That fact is the Nuclear Industry is strictly small time compared to the multi trillion dollar world wide fossil fuel industry, which directly benefits by spreading deceitful propaganda such as that this neuroscience professor is dishing out.

    This screed … replete with outright falsehoods and deceit via selective neglect of data… is horribly irresponsible. We NEED to convert massively to nuclear power for electricity production, replacing all fossil fuel plants with nuclear power plants of current (3rd and early 4th generation) plants, and later of the far more advanced 4th generation designs. It is the only chance we have to lower global CO2 output, and hold in check global warming. Solar is all well and good as a supplementary source… solar panels on rooftops is mostly a good thing… but it can’t provide more than 10% to 15% of the power our civilization needs.

  • Roger Gloss

    Thank you, Roger Johnson, for an informative, thorough, and extremely troubling analysis of risks to South Orange County and beyond that began with operation of the nuclear power plant at San Onofre and have by no means ended with its recent shutdown. The politics surrounding nuclear power and the NRC are no less poisonous than the radiation itself. The fact that no one understood these risks when this all began is no excuse for inaction on its potential consequences.