Study Shows Drop in Cancer Incidence after Closure of Sacramento Reactor may Warrant Full Review of Other Low-level Radiation Risks

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A first long-term study of the full-population health impacts of the closure of nuclear reactor in the United States found 4,319 fewer cancers over 20 years, with declines in cancer incidence in 28 of 31 categories (14 of them statistically significant), including notable drops in cancer for women, Hispanics and children.

In their article, published Biomedicine International, an open access peer-reviewed medical journal, the authors conclude that further research is warranted to determine if there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the elimination of radioactive emissions from nuclear power plants and significant long-term declines in human cancers.

At the heart of their study is the Rancho Seco nuclear reactor project in Sacramento County, an area with a relatively large 2010 population of more than 1.4 million. Rancho Seco is a decommissioned nuclear power generating station built by the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) in Herald, California. The power plant has been closed for since June 1989, providing a long period to examine post-shutdown local health patterns. The closest operating nuclear plant is Diablo Canyon, over 200 miles to the south.

The authors examined official California Cancer Registry data on cancer incidence for Sacramento County versus the entire state, using the last two years of reactor operation (1988-1989) as a baseline for their analysis.

California and beyond
The researcher believe that their study will have an impact far beyond California because 104 aging nuclear reactors at 65 plants throughout the United States affect many Americans.

According to the 2010 U.S. Census, over 18 million Americans live within 20 miles of a nuclear power plant, and over 116 million live within 50 miles. Major populations live nearby other idled reactors: Los Angeles (San Onofre 1), New York City (Indian Point 1 and Shoreham), Chicago (Dresden 1 and Zion), San Diego (San Onofre 1), Portland (Trojan), New Haven (Millstone 1 and Connecticut Yankee), Providence (Millstone 1), and Harrisburg (Three Mile Island 2).

Commenting on the study, Epidemiologist Joseph Mangano,MPH MBA, executive director of the Radiation and Public Health Project, noted: “For the first time we’ve examined long-term changes in health status near closed nuclear plants. The need for more knowledge is great, given how many reactors are near major population centers. San Onofre, in southern California, has 8.4 million persons living within 50 miles. Indian Point, in southern New York, has 17.2 million within 50 miles. We need more information about the long-term impact of low-level radiation from both idled and currently operating reactors.”

Measuring health and costs
“The impact of reactors should be measured not only in terms of health, but also in terms of cost. For example, the 4,319 fewer cancers than expected in Sacramento County during the first 20 years after the Rancho Seco closure translates into many millions saved in direct medical costs, reduction of productivity lost, and additional savings associated with the value of a human life. With large numbers such as these, and with the future of this source of power a matter of great public concern, reports like this one must be followed by ongoing efforts to attain better understanding of potential improvements in public health after reactors are shutdown.” said Janette Sherman, one of the study’s authors and internist and toxicologist, and a former adjunct professor at Western Michigan University.

The study’s authors also lists other key findings in their article:

  • Declines in Sacramento County cancer were observed for both males and females. The change was four times greater in females than in males, so it was statistically significant only for females. Among the four types of cancer with a significantly decreased frequency were cancers of the female breast and thyroid.
  • From 1988-1989 to 1990-1994, the Sacramento County child cancer rate age 0-19 fell from 17.92 to 15.49 cases per 100,000 population, a drop of 13.6% while the state rate remained virtually unchanged. Over the next two five-year periods the county rate continued to decline before rising in 2005-2009 (to a level still lower than in the late 1980s). Children age 0-2 and 2-16 years have been estimated to be 10 and 3 times more sensitive to radiation exposure, respectively, than adults. The developing fetus undergoes rapid cell proliferation, self-programmed cell death (apoptosis), and cell re-arrangement. The developing infant is similarly susceptible to cellular and metabolic damage. Unrepaired damage becomes magnified with time.

Long-term findings
The long-term findings published in the study are mirrored in earlier studies covering shorter periods of time. Examination of these short-term local health status changes in young persons immediately after shutdown of eight nuclear plants between 1987 and 1997 compared infant mortality for the two years before shutdown (including shutdown year) with the two years following. Rates in each of the eight areas decreased more rapidly than in the U.S. as a whole; the total decline for the eight areas was -17.4% vs. -6.4% nationally. The three areas for which cancer incidence was available showed a decrease of -25.0%, in children age 0-4, vs. a rise of 0.5% for the entire U.S.

For more information
Mangano JJ, Sherman JD.Long-term Local Cancer Reductions Following Nuclear Plant Shutdown. Biomedicine International, Vol 4, No 1 (2013) [Full Article]

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