BY KEN LITTLE
A pilot study to determine cancer risk in the population surrounding the Nuclear Fuel Services plant in Erwin has been given a go-ahead by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC).
The NRC action followed up a recommendation by a National Academy of Sciences committee to determine cancer risk in populations surrounding the NFS plant and six commercial U.S. nuclear power plants in other states.
The NRC approval means that studies will be conducted at all six sites.
"The NRC is asking the Academy to carry out this effort, which will help the agency determine whether to extend the effort to the remaining U.S. reactors and certain fuel cycle sites," an NRC news release said.
The pilot study announcement comes more than a year after the NRC retained the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) committee to study the issue.
A "public comment session" for citizens was held in October 2011 in Erwin by members of the NAS committee.
The news is very welcome, said Barbara O'Neal, of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network.
"I am pleased that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission has agreed to fund the pilot study of cancer risks in populations around six nuclear facilities, to include Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin," O'Neal told The Greeneville Sun.
2 TYPES OF STUDIES
The pilot effort "will examine each of the seven sites with two types of epidemiological studies," the NRC said.
The first will examine multiple cancer types in populations living near the facilities, and the second will be a case-controlled study of cancers in children born near the facilities.
[O'Neal said that when she and Jonesborough resident and Sierra Club member Linda Modica went to Washington, D.C., in February 2009 to attend the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board meeting and made a pitch for a cancer study in the Erwin/Unicoi County area, "It was a real longshot."
She said that, up to that time, most discussions about cancer studies "focused on communities near nuclear reactors."
"Nonetheless, we made our plea to NAS to consider fuel cycle facilities, and especially NFS since it is located so close to the offsite population, which the NRC calls 'MEOI's' (Maximally Exposed Offsite Individuals), since the facility is now 54 years old, and since the cancer rate is so high in this area," O'Neal said.
START WITHIN 3 MONTHS
NRC officials said the agency will work with the Academy to begin the pilot study process in the next three months.
NRC staff anticipates the study "will continue at least into 2014 and cost about $2 million," the news release said.
NFS manufactures uranium fuel for the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships.
The facility, which is located near the Nolichucky River, is 28 miles upstream from Greeneville.
NFS officials have maintained that the company's plant in Unicoi County is safe and poses no health threat to the public.
"NFS supports the decision of the NRC to sponsor the NAS study," NFS spokeswoman Lauri Turpin said today.
OTHER SITES SELECTED
In addition to NFS, the study will include six commercial reactor sites:
* Dresden Nuclear Power Station, in Morris Ill.;
* Millstone Power Station, in Waterford, Conn.;
* Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station, in Forked River, N.J.;
* San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in San Clemente, Calif.;
* Haddam Neck (a decommissioned site), in Haddam Neck, Conn; and
* Big Rock Point Nuclear Power Plant (a decommissioned site), in Charlevoix, Mich.
The Dresden, Millstone and San Onofre sites include both operating reactors and a decommissioned reactor.
"The Academy recommended these sites because they provide a good sampling of facilities with different operating histories, population sizes, and levels of complexity in data retrieval from the relevant state cancer registries," the NRC said.
PURPOSE OF STUDY
NRC officials said the overall aim of the NRC-sponsored Academy study is to provide a "modern version" of a 1990 U.S. National Institutes of Health-National Cancer Institute (NCI) report entitled "Cancer in Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities."
The 1990 NCI report concluded that cancer mortality rates were not elevated in populations living near nuclear plants.
The NRC has used the 1990 NCI report "as a primary resource when communicating with the public about cancer mortality risk in counties that contain or are adjacent to certain nuclear power facilities," the news release said.
CANCER LINK CLAIMED
Opponents of NFS, which has been operating in Unicoi County since the 1950s under a succession of owners, maintain there is a clear link between its operation and higher cancer rates among those living along the Nolichucky River downstream from the plant.
A lawsuit filed in June 2011 in U.S. District Court in Greeneville now has more than 150 plaintiffs.
The lawsuit names NFS and a number of other companies that previously owned, or had an interest in, the Unicoi County facility as defendants.
Plaintiffs seek a class-action designation, and are asking the court to award millions of dollars in damages.
PHASE 1 COMPLETED
Phase 1 of the study was completed in the spring of this year by the Academy committee, and forms the basis for the pilot study given the green light Tuesday by the NRC.
In Phase 1, the Academy "developed proposed methods for examining the most up-to-date cancer information in populations living near NRC-licensed nuclear facilities," the news release said.
CITIZENS 'DESERVE' STUDY
The pilot studies "will determine the feasibility of using these methods on the balance of the remaining operating nuclear power facilities and certain fuel cycle facilities in Phase 2 of the project," the NRC release stated.
The initial study was instrumental in moving the process forward, O'Neal said.
"I believe the Phase I cancer study done by the NAS in the spring of this year, and the public comments to that study, contributed to the NRC decision to proceed," she said.
"Additionally, I believe the people of Unicoi County deserve this study, especially since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) destroyed the cancer studies done here in 1979 and 1981," O'Neal said.