BY KEN LITTLE
A 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 should get under way within the next few months.
The study was given the green light last fall by the NRC and was initially projected to begin by early 2013. But "administrative details" delayed the start of the study, Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) spokesman Scott Burnell said last week.
In October, the NRC said the NAS study would begin within three months.
"When we made the October announcement, the staff made a good-faith estimate that the NRC and NAS would need about three months to work out the administrative details," Burnell said.
"It turns out that was an optimistic estimate, particularly since many of the relevant NAS staff have multiple projects on their plates."
Jennifer Walsh, NAS spokeswoman, was more specific.
"We anticipate to start the study in early spring," Walsh said last week.
The pilot study was hailed by opponents of the NFS operation in Unicoi County as long overdue.
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.
NRC approval of the study followed a recommendation by an NAS 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 clears the way for the studies to be conducted in the area surrounding NFS and all six commercial 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 approval came more than a year after the NRC retained an NAS committee to study the issue, in 2011.
The NAS is a private, non-profit society. "The NAS is charged with providing independent, objective advice to the nation on matters related to science and technology," according to the organization's website, http://www.nasonline.org/
The start of the pilot study is welcome news, said Barbara O'Neal, of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network.
"I sort of expected it would be spring before they could do that," O'Neal said Monday. "I'm just glad they will do it and they didn't change their minds."
The pilot study "is definitely needed," O'Neal said.
"I'm grateful the National Academy chose to do the study in [this] area," she said.
"I would like them to concentrate on Erwin, Jonesboro and Greeneville because of the river and the contamination. Greeneville residents take their water supply from the river, and I hope they focus on the river."
NFS officials maintain that the Erwin plant 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 after the NRC announced approval of the study last year.
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 focus on multiple cancer types in populations living near the facilities. The second will be a case-controlled study of cancers in children born near the facilities.
O'Neal said that until recently, 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)," O'Neal said last year.
A study with current information is also important, O'Neal said, because NFS is now 55 years old, "and since the cancer rate is so high in this area."
NRC staff anticipates the study "will continue at least into 2014 and cost about $2 million," the October 2012 news release said.
NFS manufactures uranium fuel for the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships.
NFS also converts government stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium into nuclear reactor fuel for commercial clients.
The facility, which is located near the Nolichucky River, is 28 miles upstream from Greeneville.
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.