The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) on Tuesday announced that it was cancelling an in-progress study on cancer risks for populations living near reactor sites, citing cost and expected low value of the overall project—but at least one nuclear watchdog group is charging the agency with being part of a cover-up.
Beyond Nuclear, which describes itself as an organization that tracks "health, safety and environmental dangers of nuclear power facilities," said the NRC's decision to drop the study after completing its first phase was "outrageous" and comes at "the expense of public health and safety."
In announcing its cancellation, the commission said the study, initiated in 2009 and expected to take eight to 10 years to complete, would have been too expensive at an estimated $8 million cost. But as Beyond Nuclear pointed out in a statement on Tuesday, the NRC has a yearly budget of $1 billion—making the price tag for the study "a drop in the bucket" for the agency in terms of cost.
Beyond Nuclear radiation and health specialist Cindy Folkers on Tuesday pointed to a more nefarious possibility behind the cancellation: the NRC's own industry connections. Documents (pdf) recently obtained by Beyond Nuclear reveal a close relationship between NRC staffers and the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection Measurements (NCRP), a group that advises scientific bodies on radiation.
"NCRP is not only funded in part by the nuclear industry but its decision-makers also have strong pro-nuclear ties," Folkers said. That includes NCRP president John Boice, who according to the documents pitched an alternative study to the agency's staffers that involved cheaper and "less sensitive" methods of tracking health risks for those living near reactors.
While the NRC has yet to accept the bid, Folkers said, the players involved leave dubious questions. "John Boice has repeatedly taken industry funding for health studies and has testified against plaintiffs in radiation exposure cases," Folkers said. "The public will have absolutely no confidence in any conclusions reached by such a study and would recognize it as an attempt by the NRC to, yet again, bury public concerns about radiation exposure."
Also Tuesday, investigative journalist and professor Karl Grossman wrote that the NRC was considering replacing its current strict radiation protection threshold—which holds that radiation exposure is always harmful for people—with a more lenient and controversial "hormesis model," which states that low doses of radioactivity are actually beneficial by activating disease-fighting enzymes.
Much like with the agency's cancer study, the shadow of the pro-nuclear lobby is hanging over that prospect. As Grossman writes, the change is being pushed by representatives for institutions like Scientists for Accurate Radiation Information, UCLA medical school, and Sandia National Laboratories—or, as Nuclear Information and Resource Service (NIRS) president Michael Mariotte calls them, "pro-nuclear fanatics."
"If implemented, the hormesis model would result in needless death and misery," Mariotte told Grossman.
So why the push away from nuclear safety and oversight? As Beyond Nuclear said Tuesday, it's "the incontrovertible evidence of negative health impacts caused by the routine operation of nuclear power reactors and especially on children, that such a study would have made public."
The NRC's recent actions are "no surprise," but are nonetheless part of a "worrying trend," Folkers said.
Beyond Nuclear director of reactor oversight Paul Gunter added, "Funding a cancer study around nuclear power plants is a legitimate cost of doing radioactive business that the NRC could have collected through its licensing fees. Instead, the NRC has decided to pass along another cost savings to the nuclear industry at the expense of public health and safety."