BY KEN LITTLE
Federal funding for a planned 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 at Erwin has not yet materialized.
It's anyone's guess when the government-funded study will begin.
"We are currently evaluating the next steps in the cancer study. We anticipate knowing what those steps will be fairly soon," NRC spokesman Joey Ledford said in late August in an email response to questions from The Greeneville Sun.
In June, the NRC said that the federal government's budget-sequestration process prevented setting a timetable for the study, which received federal approval in October 2012.
When the study was approved last fall, NRC officials said it would cost about $2 million and "continue at least into 2014."
The NRC is the lead federal agency for the pilot study surrounding the Erwin facility, which makes uranium fue l for the U.S. Navy's nuclear-powered submarines and surface ships.
The company also converts government stockpiles of highly-enriched uranium into nuclear reactor fuel for commercial clients.
STILL 'IN TALKS'
An NAS spokeswoman also had few answers in early September.
"We are still in talks with the (NRC) to finalize the contract for the study. As with all of our studies, a study cannot begin, and a timetable established, until the contract has been finalized and some funding has been received," said Jennifer A. Walsh in an email response to questions.
The NAS pilot study, which also includes six commercial reactor sites across the U.S., was to have started this spring.
NRC spokesman Scott Burnell said in May he expected that the NAS "can begin their work within the next couple of months."
The sequestration refers to budget cuts to specific categories of federal spending that began on March 1 as an austerity fiscal policy.
The NRC had to "re-review" its budget for the coming year, Burnell said in May.
The pilot study is considered long overdue by critics of the NFS operation in Unicoi County.
Its approval by the NRC followed a recommendation by a NAS committee to determine cancer risk in populations surrounding the NFS plant and the six commercial nuclear power plants.
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.
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.
NFS is located near the Nolichucky River, 28 miles upstream from Greeneville. Company officials have maintained that the Unicoi County manufacturing operation 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 last year after announcement of the pilot study.