Nuclear sites the targets in cancer probe

Peter Calamai -cites Norm Rubin, Director, Nuclear Research, Energy Probe
Toronto Star
January 21, 2000

OTTAWA – A new national surveillance program will look for higher rates of cancer among people who live near nuclear power stations, uranium mines, atomic research facilities and fuel-processing plants.

The program, which the Atomic Energy Control Board says is the first continuing surveillance scheme of nuclear installations in the world, is in response to widespread public fears.

It is expected to be under way within months in an Ontario pilot project, possibly centred on the Bruce or Pickering nuclear stations and will be extended nationally by 2002. The program will be run by the federal health department and the atomic control board and will use existing data collected by Ontario Cancer Care and similar agencies in other provinces.

Details of the program were released here yesterday at a regular meeting of the agency, which is Canada’s nuclear safety watchdog.

“We want to make sure there are no surprises for us,” staff epidemiologist Suzana Fraser told the five-member governing board. She said science can’t always anticipate everything.

Setting up the surveillance system marks a major shift for the nuclear watchdog, which has said nuclear operations cannot produce cancers or other radiation-linked health problems because government rules keep radiation doses to the public well below problem levels.

In effect, the surveillance program could provide an early warning in case new scientific research invalidates current assumptions about safe radiation levels.

In an interview, Fraser said the chief reason for setting up the program was mounting public concern over sporadic reports that link living near nuclear installations with various health problems.

“Primarily we’re doing this because we continue to have public concern – public fears, really – which can be detrimental to public health,” she said.

The surveillance program would likely apply to seven locations in Ontario: Nuclear power stations such as Bruce, near Kincardine; Darlington, at Newcastle and Pickering. Nuclear research facilities at Chalk River and possibly at McMaster University in Hamilton. Uranium refining and fabricating plants at Port Hope. The now-closed uranium mine at Elliot Lake.

Exactly how to cast the surveillance net around each community will be determined by the pilot project, said Fraser.

Two earlier AECB-sponsored studies examined the rates of childhood leukemia within 25 kilometres of the Bruce and Pickering power plants.

Those studies, carried out in 1990 and 1991, found the leukemia rates in children up to 14 years old living near the two nuclear reactors were 40 per cent higher than the provincial average.

But consultants hired by the watchdog agency said these higher rates could be simply chance.

Another 1991 report counted 24 Down syndrome babies born between 1973 and 1988 to mothers who lived near the Pickering power station. The expected number would have been 13 according to the provincial average.

More recently, other studies have linked higher breast and prostate cancer rates with living near nuclear power plants. Yet the weight of scientific opinion is that no clear causal connection has been demonstrated.

“We want to make sure that we’re right,” Fraser said. “We’re applying the precautionary principle.”

Prominent critics of the nuclear industry welcomed news of the program.

“I’m glad they’re starting somewhere,” said Dr. Rosalie Bertell with the International Institute of Concern for Public Health in Toronto.

But Bertell said the surveillance should also be looking at birth defects and any disease with a genetic component, such as diabetes or some heart conditions.

“Many diseases can be initiated by radiation and then carried on in the family,” she said.

Norm Rubin, nuclear expert with Toronto’s Energy Probe, said he was worried that the control board might not rigorously pursue apparent health problems flagged by the surveillance scheme.

“They’ve already tried to explain away the 40 per cent leukemia; they’ve explained away clusters of Down syndrome.

That seems to be what they’re best at – explaining away,” Rubin said.

Rubin also said that the control board had a credibility problem since it had always asserted that radiation releases at higher-than-existing levels would not cause cancers or other illness.

“Nobody is going to get promoted for discovering that AECB-approved releases have led to health problems.’

A national surveillance program has only become feasible recently, according to board officials, because of major improvements in the initial gathering of cancer incidence data and the rapid compilation electronically.

The program will examine these reports for closely defined areas around each of the nuclear installations, an analysis which is not done now.

The region studied could be a simple circle but it might also be lined up with measurements of radiation spread by a smokestack plume.

Another option is to check the cancer data for disease clusters near nuclear facilities.

Advice on which approach to use will come from the Laboratory Centre for Disease Control, a federal health agency handling the data analysis for the control board.

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