BY KEN LITTLE
Funding has been secured for the second phase of the pilot study by the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to determine the potential cancer risk in the population surrounding the Nuclear Fuel Services (NFS) plant in Erwin.
NFS is located near the Nolichucky River, 28 miles upstream from Greeneville.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) said this week that the NAS "has started the initial planning step" of the Phase 2 study, which also includes cancer risks in the populations living near six U.S. nuclear power plants.
NFS manufactures uranium fuel for U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships.
It also converts government stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium into nuclear reactor fuel for commercial clients.
The pilot study had been in limbo until funding from the government was obtained for the NAS.
"The wheels of bureaucracy had to complete turning in order to get the funding where it needed to go. We worked out the necessary arrangements for the NAS to move forward with the pilot studies," NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said Tuesday.
The NAS now has to assemble experts to conduct the study.
"That will take some time," Burnell said.
The process includes public meetings at each study site, including NFS. The date and location of a public meeting in this area has not yet been determined.
The study will cost about $2 million. Approximately $500,000 for its second phase was obtained and will go to the NAS, Burnell said.
NAS PREPS FOR STUDY
NAS spokeswoman Jennifer A. Walsh said plans are in the works to move the pilot study forward.
"The next step for the NAS for the study is to select a committee. When the provisional committee is formally approved, we will post the provisional committee slate and statement-of-task online," she said.
Walsh discussed the timetable going forward.
"From committee selection, to gathering information and holding meetings, to releasing the report will take approximately one year," she said.
"The committee will have to meet first to decide how they will approach the study and when and where they will hold meetings."
Information about the steps related to the NAS study process can be found at http://www.nas.edu/studyprocess/index.html
Barbara O'Neal, a retired 35-year U.S. Department of Defense employee who lives about a quarter-mile from the NFS plant, is a member of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network.
O'Neal said Tuesday that she hopes the NAS study will be productive.
"I am really pleased that the study has finally begun, albeit in the planning phase for a year," O'Neal said.
"I will be even more pleased when we see a presence of those doing the study here in our communities.
"Perhaps they will finally pay attention to the results of the multiple samples of water and soil we have tested over the past five years."
NFS officials maintain that the Unicoi County facility is safe and poses no health threat to the public.
NRC officials said the goal 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 its primary resource when communicating with the public about cancer mortality risk in counties that contain, or are adjacent to, certain nuclear power facilities.
TWO TYPES OF STUDIES
The study "will examine each of the seven sites with two types of epidemiological studies," the NRC said.
The first will look at 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 nuclear facilities.
In April 2010, the NRC staff requested the NAS perform a study on cancer mortality and incidence risks in population living near NRC-licensed facilities.
The study was divided into two phases:
In Phase 1, a 20-member NAS committee explored the feasibility of conducting an updated study "by developing modern methods to perform the analysis," according to the NRC.
In Phase 2, NAS will perform the cancer-risk assessment using new methods developed in Phase 1.
"The 1990 NCI report is now more than 20 years old, and more modern analysis methods, combined with up-to-date information sources, will provide contemporary cancer information in current populations living near the NRC-licensed nuclear facilities," an NRC policy document said.
Members of the NAS committee that put together the Phase 1 report were present in October 2011 at a public meeting held at Unicoi County High School in Erwin.