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Petitioners are concerned about California’s “decades-long history” of radiological releases into the environment. Photo by Jordan P. Ingram
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Petition calls for cancer study around San Onofre plant

REGION — A recently circulated petition is calling for federal funding to research possible cancer risks of people living near nuclear power plants like the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station.

According to the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, which circulated the petition, nearly 1,200 people have signed it. The petition calls for Congress to secure $8 million in federal funding to bring back a National Academy of Sciences report, “Analysis of Cancer Risks in Populations Near Nuclear Facilities.”

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) originally approached the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to perform a study on cancer risks for populations living around nuclear facilities. The NRC then ended the project in 2015 after concluding it wasn’t likely that researchers could collect usable results in a reasonable time.

As part of the research, NAS recommended a pilot study of seven nuclear facilities, including San Onofre.

There were several challenges identified: the need for larger groups of people to detect very small changes in risk, uneven availability and quality of cancer data for areas smaller than a county, and difficulty in reliably getting information on population movement and other variables. The pilot study would determine if those challenges could be overcome.

NAS researchers determined that the pilot study was unlikely to answer the question of whether it was able to gather enough data for estimating cancer risks in populations near nuclear facilities.  They also determined that they would need more than three years and $8 million to complete the pilot study.

If the pilot succeeded, expanding research to all of the nation’s nuclear facilities would take longer and tens of millions of more dollars. The NRC decided the time and money would not be well spent for possible lack of useful results.

Petitioners, however, want researchers to go forward with the study.

“We want to know if the people have been getting cancer,” said Roger Johnson, a retired neuroscience professor and cosponsor of the petition.

The petition was sent to the offices of California congress members Rep. Mike Levin (D-49), Rep. Salud Carbajal (D-24), Rep. Katie Porter (D-45) and Rep. Harley Rouda (D-48).

According to Johnson, one of the biggest issues in the country is the inability to find a permanent repository to store nuclear waste. He added that cancer is now the number one killer in California, but the source of cancer can be difficult to trace — hence the need for the study.

Petitioners are concerned about California’s “decades-long history” of radiological releases into the ocean and air from San Onofre and Diablo Canyon nuclear plants.

San Onofre’s emissions slowed after the plant shut down in 2012. According to SLF, those emissions are expected to increase with demolition.

Johnson is concerned that the radiological releases over time have built up and are causing cancer in people over a period of years.

“You may get radiated tomorrow and years from now you may get cancer,” Johnson said.

According to Eric Goldin, a project manager and certified radiation protection professional who has worked at SONGS for over 30 years, in order to properly study a population near a nuclear facility plant, each person would need to be wearing a dosimeter, a device used to measure radiation exposure.

Goldin said there is already a big study underway that is looking at radiation exposure for people who work in nuclear facilities and other radiation industries, like medicine and radiologists. These approximately 1 million workers being monitored wear dosimeters while on the job, which provides good data for the study.

Workers in radiation industries are exposed to far more radiation than the public, Goldin said.

According to Goldin, residents near the power plant are not being exposed to enough radiation from the plant to cause cancer.

He explained that a person who lived at the plant site would have to be present on the property continuously for a year to be exposed to any airborne releases to receive not even 1 millirem of radiation. On average, humans receive about 310 millirems annually from background radiation and other sources, including their own bodies.

An airplane ride across the country exposes a person to about 2-5 millirems, he added.

Additionally, the liquid batch releases at SONGS are 20 times lower than the level of radiation already in the ocean, which is 5,000 times lower than drinking water standards set by the World Health Organization.

“Federal and state regulatory limits are in place to ensure the protection of the health and safety of the public and employees,” said John Dobken, SONGS spokesperson, via email. “The releases are well-below these regulatory limits and documented in annual reports submitted to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.”

In a written statement, Bart Zeigler, president of the Samuel Lawrence Foundation, said:

“Samuel Lawrence Foundation co-sponsored this petition for cancer research near San Onofre nuclear because it is our duty to look out for the interests of California residents. As a country, we must study the health impact of nuclear power plants in communities and create policy based on science, not the nuclear industry’s lobbying.”