Friday, March 21, 2014

A Pilgrims Progress Away from Nuclear Misinformation

A bunch of Massachusetts papers are buzzing with this news:

Residents who live in Plymouth or other towns near the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station run an increased risk of developing cancer, according to an epidemiologist called as an expert witness for the defense Wednesday during the trespassing trial of 12 Cape activists in Plymouth District Court.

Richard Clapp, a retired professor from the Boston University School of Public Health, said the continued operation of the Plymouth plant was "a risk and an unacceptable risk in my view."

Dr. Clapp is certainly a respectable figure, but he does not like nuclear energy even a little. Interestingly, in an editorial he wrote against including nuclear in a climate change bill back in 2008, he included a laundry list of objections – cost, risk, threats, etc – with only a bit devoted to health issues as he saw them.

Health: The nuclear fuel cycle exposes workers and communities to radiation from mining, milling, fuel fabrication, transportation, reactor operation, all the way to decommissioning and disposal. The biggest population-level exposure is actually to the uranium miners and millers and surrounding communities. Surely, these health implications need to be considered. Do we want to saddle future generations with the burden of solving these problems?

Presumably, the health risk is cancer, which is what he is testifying about now, and I have no problem accepting that many of the reasons he’s adopted to counter nuclear energy roots in his work as a epidemiologist. Radiation exposure is a charge to which nuclear energy is exceptionally vulnerable, but has never been responsive to. Facilities don’t add to the radiation that people pick up just moving through their days. Study after study shows that. (NEI has a nice collection of papers on various studies and of course you can read the original studies when they’re online.)

A study done by the Massachusetts Department of Health that showed elevated cancer incidents around the Pilgrim facility excited anti-nuclear advocates when it was released in 1990. But the department found the report troubling in a number of ways and asked a group of experts to critique it. Among the problems:

The leukemia mortality rates for this area [around Pilgrim] have remained close to the state average throughout the period. This finding contradicts the substantial increase in leukemia risk found by SMSII [the original study].

And:

The strength of the association between leukemia and proximity to the Pilgrim power plant was unexpected based on previous studies of the leukemogenic effects of low dose radiation. Furthermore, the specific  problems mentioned above make it difficult to conclude that the observed association is real and related to nuclear power plant emissions.

The report on the report said the first report did not include all the towns around Pilgrim or any children in the sample and did not examine areas around other nuclear facilities to provide some comparable bases. There were some other comments related to the design of the study that gets into the specifics of the field - study-speak, so to speak - but that’s the gist of it.

Regardless of this, some people have dined out on the original study – perhaps including those 12 folk now in trouble for trespassing onto Pilgrim – definitely including Dr. Clapp – for years.

We have nothing whatever against studies such as those conducted by the Department of Health. Nuclear energy has not been harmed by them at all, since they turn up nothing untoward and they do have the benefit of reassuring anyone in the public that needs it. But a fair number of anti-nuclear advocates are not going to thrown off the scent – more’s the pity. Cancer carries a potent charge that shouldn’t be exploited.

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I’m not in the least bit competent to comment on the court case, though I did find this line up of witnesses interesting:

Today, Gordon Thompson, an expert on energy, environment and security, is scheduled to testify about safety issues. And on Friday, Stephen Nathanson, a professor at Northeastern University, will focus on social change. The defense will wrap up with state Sen. Daniel Wolf, D-Harwich, a longtime Pilgrim opponent.

Being against something and trespassing onto that something sound like different issues to me, but these witnesses should at least make for a lively trial.

2 comments:

Mitch said...

Wonder if one can be held liable for disseminating malicious misinformation to the public, like yelling fire in a theater? Isn't that already called slander and defamation? Put the lawyers to work, nuke plants!


Joseph said...

This doesn't explain the below-normal cancer-mortality rates for people living near the Rocky Mountains ("...where the scenery's attractive and the air is radioactive..."---Professor Tom Lehrer).