San Onorfe nuclear plant. (Los Angeles Times )
The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced plans Tuesday to launch a pilot epidemiological study of cancer risks near six nuclear power plants, including San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in north San Diego County.
The commission is acting out of growing concern that using uranium to produce electricity may be dangerous even without accidents at nuclear plants. In addition, recent epidemiological studies in Germany and France suggest that the children living near nuclear reactors are twice as likely to develop leukemia.
The U.S. study will be conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, which will also help the commission determine whether to extend the study to all 65 U.S. nuclear power plants and certain nuclear fuel sites.
The pilot study will investigate cancer rates in each census tract within a 30-mile radius of the nuclear facilities, and assess cancers in children younger than 15 whose mothers lived near a nuclear facility during pregnancy. About 1 million people live within five miles of operating nuclear plants in the United States, and more than 45 million live within 30 miles, nuclear regulatory officials said.
The study will cost about $2 million and is to begin later this year, with the results available in 2014, commission spokesman Scott Burnell said. Before beginning, researchers will meet with communities near the plants to explain how the study will be conducted, Burnell said.
The academy chose sites that provide a broad representation of engineering designs and operating histories in states that have a variety of data retrieval systems in cancer registries.
The study area around the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station, which has been out of commission since January because of equipment problems, encompasses 2.4 million people in more than 50 cities, including Laguna Beach, Huntington Beach, Costa Mesa, Santa Ana, Tustin, Lake Elsinore, Temecula, Oceanside, Escondido, Solana Beach and Camp Pendleton.
The last time officials assessed cancer rates near nuclear power plants was in 1990. The National Cancer Institute studied cancer risks posed by the 104 licensed reactors the commission governed at that time. The study concluded that the health risks, if any, were too small to be measured.
The commission has been relying on the results of that study ever since to inform the public about cancer mortality rates near nuclear reactors.
"I'm very pleased about this pilot study," said Roger Johnson, a retired neuroscience professor and member of the nonprofit environmental group San Clemente Green, which has raised safety and health concerns about San Onofre.
"Most people are focused on accidents at nuclear power plants," Johnson said. "They don't realize that they store tons of radioactive material and emit low levels of radioactive waste into the atmosphere."