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When Wilhelm Roentgen stumbled onto the potential of x-rays in 1895, his findings transformed the medical world.

That discovery fueled a flurry of scientific research that fueled other inventions that would alter society including nuclear power plants. These plants supply about 20 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. without producing greenhouse gases or other air pollutants.

While health concerns about significant radiation exposure surfaced after events at Three Mile Island in the 1970s and more recently in Fukushima, Japan, some advocates against nuclear energy suggest even low levels of radiation around power plants cause cancers.

A recent study published in Biomedicine International, “Long-Term local Cancer Reductions Following Nuclear Plant Shutdown,” suggests notable drops in breast, thyroid and other cancer rates 20 years after the 1989 closure of a plant at Rancho Seco, an economically challenged California reactor.

The authors of the study, Joseph Mangano, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, and Janette Sherman, M.D., suggest a correlation exists between the elimination of radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants and significant long-term declines in human cancers.

Nuclear energy advocates disagree with the study’s suggested findings.

“By the authors’ own admission, the study has so many caveats that they can’t determine the exact cause of the change in cancer rates,” says Joseph Scopelliti, community relations manager, PPL Susquehanna. “The National Cancer Institute and other scientific organizations have conducted study after comprehensive study that found no adverse public health effects around nuclear power plants. Although it is very difficult to determine what actually causes cancer, most studies respected by the scientific community have not implicated low-level radiation as a public health risk.”

The National Academy of Sciences began performing a state-of-the-art study on cancer risk for populations surrounding Nuclear Regulatory Commission-licensed nuclear facilities in 2011. That study continues today and nuclear energy advocates await its results.

“Susquehanna has extensive controls in place to minimize radiation exposure to the public and our employees,” says Scopelliti. “Very sensitive radiation monitors around our plant have shown no increase in radiation above normal background levels. The exposure our employees get inside the plant is well below federal limits for radiation workers.”

The Susquehanna Steam Electric Station in Salem Township, Luzerne County, rests within a population estimated in 2010 at nearly 55,000 people within a 10-mile radius and over 1.7 million within a 50-mile radius.

“We do extensive radiological studies of air, water, plant life and animal life in the area around the Susquehanna plant,” says Scopelliti. “These studies began 10 years before the plant was built and has continued since then. In all those years, we have seen no changes in radiation levels in the local environment attributable to the Susquehanna plant. The radiological effects of the Susquehanna plant on the local environmental are undetectable.”

One nuclear expert agrees.

David J. Allard, director of the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection’s Bureau of Radiation Protection, oversees nine active nuclear power plants on five sites throughout the state. DEP also oversees licensing for medical, academic, industrial type of sources of radiation including nearly 30,000 pieces of x-ray equipment in facilities, half of which are used by dentists.

“The technical reality with these nuclear power plants is that under the federal regulations, Title 10, Part 50, in the code of federal regulations, these power plants can’t emit liquid and airborne radiation that cause greater than three millirem of radiation,” says Allard.

“We see lots of background (radiation) and it’s only when you have Chernobyl or Fukushima where you actually see material on our samples other than the natural background and some residual fallout from the 50s and 60s. We monitor this and quite honestly at those kinds of levels, it’s really, really difficult to measure.”

According to Allard, radon, chemical exposures, genetics and lifestyles may have more impact on the prevalence of cancer rates.

“The problem is that correlation does not mean causation just because people live next to a power plant,” he says. “People are moving in and out. There are other major sources of radiation exposure that the public gets that really swamp whatever little radiation does come from the nuclear plant. The big one is the medical screenings…In these studies, whether by the NRC or Mr. Mangano, you have to control for those other sources of exposure.”

Other studies find results contrary to those offered by Mangano’s study.

“The largest and most comprehensive study of cancer mortality near nuclear power plants—by the National Cancer Institute—found no evidence of increased risk of death from a wide range of cancers, and no adverse impact of nuclear energy facilities on public health,” says Thomas M. Kauffman, spokesman for the Nuclear Energy Institute. “The National Cancer Institute study was published in March 1991 in the Journal of the American Medical Association. NCI scientists studied more than 900,000 cancer deaths using county mortality records collected from 1950 to 1984.”

Kauffman disputes the suggestions made by Mangano’s study.

“Operations of U.S. nuclear power plants are overseen continuously by the government to ensure compliance with strict radiation safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and enforced by the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission,” says Kauffman.

“Radiation monitoring information is reported annually and publicly to the government, and consistently is found to be less than one-tenth of the exposure levels allowed by the federal government. Numerous studies and reports indicate that, historically, the annual exposure to the nearest resident from a U.S. nuclear power plant has been less than 1 millirem, compared to the annual average exposure from natural sources of 300 millirem.”

Another radiation expert disputes the study’s suggested findings, referring to the study as a speculative editorial rather than a scientific study.

“It has no merit,” says Dr. James Conca, senior scientist with the RJLee Group and director of the Center for Laboratory Sciences, an analytical and forensic laboratory based in Pasco, Wash. “No one has been able to establish a link between cancer and being close to a nuclear power plant or facility of any sort because the amount of the radiation is so far below background because you can’t separate background from it.”

Conca credits the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s practices, standards and regulations with securing public safety.

“In fact, the medical issues, they produce much more exposure than any nuclear power plant,” he says. “Over the last 20 years, cancers in all areas have decreased. It has nothing to do with (a nuclear plant closure). People stop smoking. The air quality got much better because of the Clean Air Act. That had a huge effect.”

Despite the hard-core beliefs on both sides of the issue, no one knows the effects of low-dose radiation, according to one radiation biologist.

“There are projected risks from low-dose radiation that we estimate and we estimate the risk from low-dose radiation by extrapolating the dose from high-dose radiation,” says Day Werts, Ph.D., director of education and clinical research, Dept. of Radiation Oncology, Allegheny Hospital. “But in order to get statistical data, you have to have huge amounts in the population to study because the risk is so low. We have data from other sites that project risk at the high dose end and we extrapolate the data down to the low dose end to come up with the low-dose risk.”

Werts agrees with the author of the study that a number of issues need to be examined but questions the study’s methodology and controls. “His control group in the study only spans a two-year period of time while a study group spanned a 20-year period of time, so it’s difficult to really make large distinctions in the data when your control group and study group aren’t better matched,” he says. “Also he describes cancer incidence in 16 primary cancer types and only four of the incidence rates were statistically significant from the controls and all of those were in women.”

Werts wonders what effect improved screenings and evaluation and lifestyle changes may have had on those statistics.

“It doesn’t negate the data, but it is a confounding feature,” he says. “On the whole, the statistics that are presented here are interesting but I don’t believe they are conclusive. Clearly, more studies need to happen in these large population groups that are potentially exposed to low-doses of radiation. We need these continued kinds of studies but they need to be unbiased. They need to account for all of the variables and it’s going to take a long time before we really get a clear understanding of the low-dose radiation understanding risk. That’s something we would all like to know.”