Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s puzzling about-face on cancer study

The Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth.
David L. Ryan/globe staff/file 2006
The Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth.

There have long been questions about whether living near a nuclear power plant raises the risk of cancer, but no credible scientific link has been established between radiation emissions from reactors and the disease. That hasn’t stopped some people from worrying about it, nor have calls for more research into the issue abated.

Responding to such concerns, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission three years ago commissioned the nonprofit National Academy of Sciences to update a 1990 National Cancer Institute study of cancer cases in populations around 52 power plants. (That report said there was no “excess occurrence” of the disease). At the time, the NRC said it was moving forward with the new pilot study, because “more modern analysis methods, combined with up-to-date information sources, will provide contemporary cancer information.” Seven nuclear power plant sites were designated for the five-year project, including two in Connecticut.

This week, however, the NRC called a halt to the pilot program, saying it was going to take too long, cost too much, and — apparently — produce no new findings. The agency said it already knows, based on a raft of routine environmental data, that radiation leaks don’t cause neighbors of nuclear power plants to get cancer. Any releases that do take place are “too small to cause observable increases in cancer risk near the facilities,” it said in a statement Tuesday.


Existing science backs that up, but the NRC’s reasoning for scuttling the study is puzzling and raises concerns. It was known from the start that the research and analysis would take years to complete. And while the cost — $8 million over five years, including the $1.5 million already spent — may be significant, it is hardly the “prohibitively high” price tag cited by Brian Sheron, who runs the NRC’s Office of Regulatory Research. Cindy Folkers, with the national antinuclear group Beyond Nuclear, called it “a drop in the bucket” for an agency with an annual budget of about $1 billion.

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More important, the NRC’s original premise for a new study still holds: Given technological advancements made since 1990, it makes sense to revisit findings that have gathered 25 years’ worth of dust, especially considering the level of interest in the subject.

Pilgrim Coalition, which has criticized Entergy Corp’s operation of the Pilgrim nuclear power plant in Plymouth, called the cancellation “outrageous.” It certainly comes at an inconvenient time for Entergy. Last week, the NRC downgraded the 43-year-old Pilgrim plant’s safety status following unplanned shutdowns and problems with safety valves. Pilgrim Coalition chair Anna Baker said in an e-mail that the NRC and the nuclear industry were upset because the study was being conducted “by the unbiased National Academy of Sciences and they could not control it.”

Massachusetts Senator Edward J. Markey, a persistent nuclear industry critic, said the study’s demise indicates the NRC has adopted a “ ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ approach to this public health concern by ceasing work on what could be a life-saving cancer-risk research study.”

Some of this may be hyperbole, but the NRC’s about-face leaves it open to such speculation, and lends credence to complaints that the federal agency sometimes acts more like an industry booster than a watchdog.