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Cancer is a serious health issue everywhere, and this is especially true in San Clemente where we all live near a nuclear power plant. Does living near a nuclear power plant increase the risk of cancer? We may never know because on Sept. 8 the Nuclear Regulatory Commission terminated research designed to answer this question.
The National Academy of Sciences has been working on this for five years. Last December, they released a report titled Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities (www.nap.edu/download.php?record_id=18968). The study would have been conducted near six nuclear power plants including our own San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.
If you lived within 31 miles of San Onofre, you would be in the study. The research would have focused on children who (along with woman and the human fetus) are far more vulnerable to radiation.
Studying this issue is difficult because there are many sources of radiation and many causes of cancer. We do know that radiation effects are cumulative and the National Academy of Sciences has reported that even low levels of radiation can be harmful. Edison has been regularly discharging low-level radiation into the ocean and into our air since 1968. Recent studies in Europe have reported that just living near a nuclear power plant can double the risks of cancer in children.
The current study was proposed because the nuclear industry has been relying on an old and discredited study by the National Cancer Institute published a quarter of a century ago. The NRC likes this study because it was unable to find cancer streaks. But this study examined cancer deaths, not cancer incidents, and it studied where people died rather than where they lived or worked. Even worse, it averaged people who lived near a nuclear power plant with those who lived far away.
No wonder it failed to find an effect. Scientists know that failure to find an effect is never proof that there is no effect. Nevertheless, the nuclear industry has used this study to mislead the public and suggest radiation is harmless. Trivializing radiation dangers is a common PR tactic for the industry.
According to the California Dept. of Public Health, 1.3 million Californians today have a history of cancer. In 2013, there were 144,800 new cases and 55,485 cancer deaths. About one out of four deaths in California are caused by cancer (about 152 per day) and cancer is the leading cause of death in children.
Cancer is not one disease but rather a large group of diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. Cancer-causing radiation can easily penetrate living tissue, which is why technicians hide behind lead shielding every time you get an X-ray. Radiation is known to adversely affect cell DNA, but exact causation is difficult to prove because health effects are sometimes not manifested for years or even decades. In Japan, thousands of people continue to die every year, not from old age, but from medical complications caused by the radiation they received as children in August of 1945 when they lived near Hiroshima or Nagasaki.
The NRC sets standards on what is allowable based on estimates of risk to the average adult male. They state what is permissible, not what is safe. San Onofre’s environmental emissions continue even after reactors were shut down in January of 2012. For example, in 2012 (after shutdown), there were 335.1 hours of liquid effluent release of radionuclides. The longest one went on continuously for 28 hours discharging 1.03 billion gallons into the ocean. Were you in the ocean that day? You will never know because discharge days are secret.
The public should be outraged that the nuclear industry has blocked cancer research. Anyone concerned should contact their representatives in Congress and demand that the study be rescued by the EPA or some other government agency.
Everyone should be concerned, especially since the current plan is to store thousands of tons of uranium and plutonium indefinitely a few miles from here. There is no known technology for storing this material safely for decades or centuries. It represents a major threat not only to San Clemente but to all of Southern California.
Roger Johnson is a retired neuroscience professor living in San Clemente.