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 firstname.lastname@example.org.