Background on the Origins of the Cancer Risk Study

In the late 1980s, the National Cancer Institute (NCI) initiated an epidemiological study of cancer risks in populations near 52 commercial nuclear power plants and 10 Department of Energy nuclear facilities in the United States. The report from this study, entitled Cancer in Populations Living near Nuclear Facilities, concluded that deaths from cancer were not more frequent in the counties located near nuclear facilities compared to control counties with similar demographic characteristics. The authors of the study concluded “that if nuclear facilities posed a risk to neighboring populations, the risk was too small to be detected by a survey such as this one” (Jablon et al., 1991, JAMA, 265(11):1403-8).

 

The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (U.S.NRC) has been using this NCI study as a primary resource for communicating with the public about cancer risks near the commercial nuclear facilities that it regulates. However, this study is now over 20 years old. There have been substantial demographic shifts in populations near some of these facilities, and the facility inventory itself has changed. The USNRC is now responsible for regulating 104 nuclear power plants at 65 sites and nuclear fuel-cycle facilities at nine sites.

 

Additionally, the 1990 study used county-level data for its study and control populations. The use of countywide data made it difficult to discern local effects around nuclear facilities, especially in counties with large population centers at distance from those facilities. The 1990 study also did not attempt to estimate radiation exposures resulting from operation of the facilities to individuals living nearby. Absent reliable information on radiation exposures, it is difficult to provide scientifically supportable explanations for any observed associations between proximity to a nuclear facility and cancer incidence or mortality.  

 

The USNRC has asked the National Academy of Sciences to provide an up-to-date analysis of radiogenic cancer incidence and mortality risk to populations near currently and formerly licensed nuclear facilities. The Commission staff intends to use this updated analysis for communicating with the public about cancer risks near the nuclear facilities that it regulates.     

 

Concerns about the potential health effects associated with living near nuclear facilities are not new or unique to the United States. To date, epidemiologic studies of cancer risks in populations near nuclear facilities have been carried out in at least 12 countries (Belgium, Canada, Finland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, Japan, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, and the United States). Some of these studies have identified positive associations between proximity to a nuclear facility and cancer risk, but investigators have been unable to attribute the excess cancers to radioactive releases from the facilities.