– Feds cancel nuclear health study, leaving questions for Tennessee plant’s ailing neighbors

Institute for Southern Studies

September 9, 2015

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The NRC answers questions from the public at a 2009 meeting in Erwin, Tennessee about the Nuclear Fuel Services facility. (NRC photo via Flickr.)

This week the Nuclear Regulatory Commission announced it was canceling a National Academy of Sciences pilot study of cancer risks near U.S. nuclear facilities, citing budget pressures.

The NRC said that “continuing the work was impractical, given the significant amount of time and resources needed and the agency’s current budget constraints.” The NAS estimated that the study would take 39 months and cost $8 million.

Nuclear watchdogs blasted the NRC’s decision, with Maryland-based Beyond Nuclear calling it “outrageous.”

“Study after study in Europe has shown a clear rise in childhood leukemia around operating nuclear power facilities, yet the NRC has decided to hide this vital information from the American public,” said Cindy Folkers, a radiation and health specialist with the group. “An $8 million price tag for the next phase of this study is a drop in the bucket for an agency with a $1 billion annual operating budget.”

Beyond Nuclear raised concerns about industry manipulation, noting that it had obtained documents showing NRC staff had been approached by the president of the U.S. National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements offering a cheaper, faster and less sensitive study design, which the NRC has not yet agreed to accept. The Council is funded in part by the nuclear industry and has pro-nuclear ties.

The NAS study was to focus on seven facilities, six of them nuclear power plants: San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station in California, Millstone Power Station and Haddam Neck Plant in Connecticut, Dresden Nuclear Power Station in Illinois, Big Rock Point Nuclear Plant in Michigan, and Oyster Creek Nuclear Generating Station in New Jersey.

The other facility that was to be part of the study is Nuclear Fuel Services in Erwin, Tennessee, which produces nuclear fuel for the U.S. Navy and processes weapons-grade uranium into fuel for nuclear power plants. Originally built in the 1950s by the W.R. Grace chemical conglomerate and now owned by Virginia-based BWX Technologies, the NFS plant in northeast Tennessee’s Unicoi County has a long history of safety problems. They include a 2006 leak of highly enriched uranium, details of which were withheld from the public.

A 2010 report by a university scientist documented uranium contamination downstream from the plant in the Nolichucky River, which provides drinking water for Tennessee communities including Greeneville, and in Davy Crockett Lake, a recreation site maintained by the Tennessee Valley Authority. Besides being radioactive, uranium is a toxic metal that can impair normal functioning of the kidneys, liver, heart, brain and reproductive system. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, long-term chronic intakes of uranium isotopes in food, water, or air can lead to internal irradiation and/or chemical toxicity.

Barbara O’Neal of the Erwin Citizens Awareness Network, a group that’s been critical of NFS, told the Greeneville Sun she suspects the NRC may have pulled the plug on the cancer risk study because the agency didn’t want information it found to be released to the public.

People living near NFS have long raised concerns about cancers and other health problems in their communities. In response, the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry conducted a public health assessment in 2007. However, it focused only on volatile organic compound pollution from the facility and not radiation, since the federal Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act that gives ATSDR its authority excludes releases of the kinds of radioactive materials NFS handles.

While preparing its report, ATSDR received comments from concerned plant neighbors (commenters’ names are not included in the report):

I grew up in the big green two-story house which I think is now owned by NFS. When W.R. Grace built “the plant” down where Mrs. Home’s frog pond used to be, we had no idea what was in store. The security and regulations then were few and far between. As kids, we would still go down there and walk around the fence to see the stuff that leaked out of the big tanks. The ground was always wet. When we heard the alarm go off, we ran to the upstairs bedroom to watch the men in white suits run up the hill. Orange smoke came out of the smokestacks. My aunt was a secretary there and one night came and took us away from our house because “something” was about to happen “down at the plant”. Never knew what. I know we ate radiation straight from Mama’s garden. Our beloved little dog died of cancer. My dad died at 56 with colon cancer. Our next door neighbor died of colon cancer; I doubt she was 60. A friend and close neighbor had extensive colon cancer in his early 30’s. I had a huge lymphoma removed from my heart at the age of 30. My brother had kidney failure in his early 30’s. My sister and I both have thyroid nodules and weird protein levels in our blood that can lead to multiple myelosis. These all have to be watched closely. At the age of only 64, I also have an autoimmune disease that makes life difficult. People in Erwin are still brainwashed about NFS. Those that know the truth have died or moved away. My mother died of heart failure at 65. I believe her heart was broken.

Another commenter, a resident of Erwin, offered this account of health woes:

I live on Washington Street and I have been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I have had several lymph nodes removed due to unexplained fevers, weight loss, lymphadenopathy, etc. My illness developed when I moved to Washington Street. … I worked inside this home doing medical transcription spending all my time there from the time we moved in until approximately a year ago. My health continued to deteriorate during this period of time. I began working outside my home a year ago and I have improved considerably since then. I have been told by many well-educated individuals that there may be something in my home environment that caused by illness. With the continued improvement in my health after getting away from the house during the day … I believe there may be something to this assumption.

And yet another comment from a resident in nearby in North Carolina:

I live in the NC county (Yancey) adjacent to and downwind from Erwin TN. As a (now retired) health care professional, I have observed over many years what appears to be higher than average occurrences per capita of several debilitating diseases here. Multiple sclerosis, various unusual types of cancer, spina bifida, clefting/midline developmental disabilities among others are more prevalent in the local population than would be expected. While nobody is yet able, or willing to point the finger toward the Erwin plant … there is suspicion that airborne products from this facility passing through this area in highest concentration could be a factor in these statistics. Certainly further study is warranted.

In the end, the plant’s neighbors got few answers to questions about their health from ATSDR. It now looks like they won’t be getting answers from the NRC any time soon.