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Is it safe to live near nuclear power?

Nuclear power development has stagnated since Three Mile Island mainly as a result of the public’s fear of radiation.  This fear has real roots: ignorance of the dangers of radiation during the early years; radioactive fallout from atmospheric testing; lack of trust resulting from Cold War secrecy; and the long latency period before consequences can be diagnosed.  But are these fears rational today?  Is it safe to live near a waste repository, mine, or ore processing, nuclear power or fuel reprocessing plant?  Only trusted epidemiological data can provide answers.

The Lifespan Study of Hiroshima & Nagasaki survivors concluded that the primary detectible long-term consequence of high radiation exposure was cancer, not genetic mutations.  In 1991, Jablon et al. found “no excess cancer deaths” in U.S. counties with nuclear facilities.  More recently the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) funded the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to design an improved study to quantify cancer incidence (not mortality) near nuclear facilities. This distinction is important because incidence is much more accurate than mortality.

{mosads}NRC completed Pilot Planning, and then as reported by The Hill, the NRC canceled Pilot Execution. The stated reasons were “too expensive”, and “too long to get answers.”  The Pilot Execution phase’s estimated cost was $8-9 million for 7 facilities.  Studying all 62+ U.S. facilities would have a larger cost, but lower unit cost, because a template will have been validated. Today’s opponents of nuclear power should strongly support the study to provide solid evidence that nuclear plants are dangerous and operators cover up accidental releases.  Proponents of nuclear power should support it to provide convincing specific data that nuclear facilities can be operated safely.  People living anywhere near nuclear facilities should support it because it addresses fears that have been too often ignored.

The NAS has a good reputation for unbiased, independent scientific study. The Research Committee is in place. NAS policy is that once the study is funded the sponsor cannot influence it.  Internationally, such studies are fragmented and many are suspect; there are no comparable large scale studies. 

The impact of a trustable Cancer Risk Study would be broad. Even though nuclear power can be dangerous, it is a reliable carbon-free electrical power source.  New concepts for civilian applications have the potential to safely and sustainably power the whole planet for thousands of years and to solve the waste disposal problem.  But such a global industry can arise only if it is trusted to truly respond to the real health and whole earth environmental effects of the technology. The world needs a template for how to efficiently conduct such studies and keep them up to date.  It is time for Congress, to step up and get this process started.

Pavlak is chairman of the Future of Energy Initiative. Winsor and Rudesill are co-founders of the Future of Energy Initiative. Meadow is president of the Maryland Conservation Council.


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