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By Christine Legere

Posted Sep. 8, 2015 at 8:53 PMUpdated Sep 9, 2015 at 7:02 AM 

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission has decided to halt a study into cancer risks for people living close to nuclear power plants, saying it was taking too much time and costing too much money.

The two-phase study, begun in 2010, was being conducted by the National Academy of Sciences, with scientists spending the first two years working on research methods. Phase Two was to include a pilot study of seven plants to test out those methods.

Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station in Plymouth was not slated for the pilot study, but two Connecticut plants were on the list. While the data produced by the pilot would be limited in value in terms of establishing cancer risks, it would demonstrate whether data-gathering methods would work when expanded to a nationwide study, said Lauren Rugani, spokeswoman for the National Academy of Sciences.  

The NRC continues to find U.S. nuclear power plants comply with strict requirements that limit radiation releases from routine operations," Burnell wrote. "The NRC and state agencies regularly analyze environmental samples from near the plants. These analyses show the releases, when they occur, are too small to cause observable increases in cancer risk near the facilities."

Coming on the heels of last week’s announced downgrade of Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station to the bottom of the performance list for the nation’s 99 operating reactors, the news that a study to look at cancer rates was being abandoned angered several industry watchdogs in the region.

Among them was U.S. Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., who had pushed for the cancer study back in 2009, while he was a congressman.

“We need a thorough, accurate accounting of the health risks associated with living near nuclear facilities so residents can know if there are any adverse health impacts,” wrote Markey in a statement. “But the NRC has decided to take a ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ approach to this public health concern by ceasing work on what could be a lifesaving cancer risk research study.”

In a written statement, Brian Sheron, director of the NRC’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research, called the estimated cost to continue the study “prohibitively high.”

“We’re balancing the desire to provide updated answers on cancer risk with our responsibility to use Congressionally-provided funds as wisely as possible,” Sheron said.

Markey said nuclear regulators are gambling with the public's health. “The NRC blames budgetary constraints for ending the study, but what price do residents pay for living near operating nuclear facilities?” Markey wrote in his statement. “We should know that answer, and the NRC should prioritize the resources to continue and complete this study.”

But it never got off the ground,” Rugani said Tuesday. Her organization had just received the NRC’s letter calling off the project. “We never collected real data, never conducted any kind of analysis, and never reached any specific conclusions.”

NRC spokesman Neil Sheehan said his agency has spent $1.5 million to date on the project. “The remaining work on the pilot study was projected to take 39 months and cost $8 million,” Sheehan wrote in an email.

Sheehan said the National Academy of Sciences estimated it could take eight to 10 years to complete the pilot and nationwide studies.

Another NRC spokesman, Scott Burnell, expressed confidence the public was safe.

Mary Lampert, a Duxbury resident and president of a citizens group called Pilgrim Watch, accused the NRC of not wanting to complete a study that might say nuclear reactors are risky to the public health.

“What this is about is getting the right answer for industry, even though it’s the wrong answer for the public health and safety,” Lampert said.

State Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, expressed frustration. “It’s another sign that the NRC isn’t up to the task of guaranteeing public safety,” Wolf said. “It concerns me that the agency responsible for nuclear plant oversight doesn’t even have the funds to continue the study.”

— Follow Christine Legere on Twitter: @chrislegereCCT.

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