Studying Cancer Near Nuke Plants

  • The NRC tells people that living near nuclear power plants does not pose extra risk for cancer, and it points to a particular study, finished twenty years ago.(Photo courtesy of the Rancho Seco Reactor)

For decades, the federal government has said it’s safe to live near nuclear power reactors and it points to a particular cancer study to back that up. Shawn Allee reports, lately, the government worries that study’s out of date and it wants scientists to take another look.

Transcript

For decades, the federal government has said it’s safe to live near nuclear power reactors and it points to a particular cancer study to back that up. Shawn Allee reports, lately, the government worries that study’s out of date and it wants scientists to take another look.

The federal agency that’s looking for an up-to-date cancer study is the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC.

It’s asked the National Academy of Sciences to do that study, but the Academy hasn’t made up its mind. The academy asked the NRC, the nuclear power industry, and the public to explain why a new study’s even needed.

It broadcast the hearing over the Internet.

“Our first speaker is Sarah Sauer, private citizen.”

Sarah Sauer is 16, but looks much younger.

“I am one of the statistics you’ll be studying. When I was seven years old, I was diagnosed with brain cancer. I hope in this study you will remember who you’re doing this for.”

“Thank you Sarah, let me invite your parents to say something if they’d like to.”

“I am Cynthia Sauer, Sarah’s mom. For my family and i this study is long overdue. nine years ago today, Sarah was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. The pain has been so shattering that we still cannot give it words.”

Cynthia Sauer tells the National Academy how her family once lived near the Dresden nuclear power station, about 50 miles Southwest of Chicago.

She’d learned that power plant leaked radioactive water years ago.

Cynthia Sauer can’t say for sure the plant caused Sarah’s cancer, but she wonders … because other kids were diagnosed with cancer, too.

“I began searching for answers to my questions regarding the leaks and the numbers of children diagnosed with cancer in our small town.”

Cynthia Sauer turned to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.

The NRC tells people that living near nuclear power plants does not pose extra risk for cancer, and it points to a particular study, finished twenty years ago.

“The scientists in the ad hoc committee statement clearly stated the study was flawed and that further monitoring and investigation was needed.”

What are the flaws? For one, the old study concluded people living near nuclear power plants do not face extra risk of dying from cancer … but it didn’t answer whether they’re at risk of getting cancer.

It ignored cancer survivors or people who moved before dying of the disease.

Sauer tells the academy that … this is why we need a new cancer study – we just can’t be confident in the old one.

And that’s a problem because at least three million people live within ten miles of a nuclear power plant.

Some US Congressmen want the safety issue settled, and in fact, so does the nuclear power industry.

Ralph Anderson is with The Nuclear Energy Institute, a trade group.

He says other studies suggest power plants are safe … so the industry has nothing to worry about from a new study – unless the Academy misinterprets results:

“There have been studies where people simply collect the data and let the computer go to work to bend the data in a wide variety of ways. We have been the victim of a number studies that have done precisely that. So, you end up with weird age groups and things like that because the data’s carefully selected to prove the point. That’s what we’d like to see avoided.”

So the public, the government and industry want some kind of follow-up study on cancer rates near nuclear power plants.

But that might not be enough for The National Academy of Sciences to move forward.
Many scientists say we can’t begin good studies, because it’s hard to collect the necessary data.
In fact, one group that says that … is the same group that conducted the original cancer study twenty years ago.

For The Environment Report, I’m Shawn Allee.

Related Links

Arctic Ocean Methane

  • A recent study shows the arctic seabed is releasing up to ten-million tons of methane annually. (Photo Courtesy of Patrick Kelley, U.S. Coast Guard)

New research indicates the Arctic seabed is releasing methane at a rate higher than all the other oceans of the world combined. This recent discovery raises concerns about the pace of global warming. Lester Graham reports:

Transcript

New research indicates the Arctic seabed is releasing methane at a rate higher than all the other oceans of the world combined. Lester Graham reports, this recent discovery raises concerns about the pace of global warming.

Under a shallow part of the Arctic Ocean, the seafloor was thought to be permanently frozen, capping vast stores of methane underneath. Researchers at the University of Alaska Fairbanks have found that frozen cap is beginning to leak large amounts of methane into the atmosphere. Natalia Shakhova is one of the leaders of a team that’s been studying the permafrost under the Arctic Ocean.

“What we’re having now, it’s up to ten-million ton[s] of methane annually escaping from this seabed. That means that permafrost does not serve as an impermeable cap to prevent these leakages any longer.”

Methane is a greenhouse gas 30 times more potent than carbon dioxide. The greatest concern about methane releases had been the permafrost on land… but this underwater release could mean climate changes could accelerate.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Testing the Smart Grid

  • A smart grid diagram from the US Department of Energy. (Photo courtesy of the US Departmen of Energy)

Some electric companies are working
to put smart meters on our homes.
They want to change how we use
electricity hour by hour. Eventually,
power companies will charge more
when demand for electricity is highest.
Mark Brush reports on a new study
that looks at how people are responding:

Transcript

Some electric companies are working
to put smart meters on our homes.
They want to change how we use
electricity hour by hour. Eventually,
power companies will charge more
when demand for electricity is highest.
Mark Brush reports on a new study
that looks at how people are responding:

Connecticut Light and Power tested the smart grid on about 3,000 of it’s customers. Half of them residential and half of them business customers.

They found that people did respond to high rates during high periods of demand – such as from noon to eight pm.

Jessica Cain is with Connecticut Light & Power. She says there seems to be a limit to how much they’ll change. For example, doing laundry late at night seemed to be a non-starter.

“Doing your laundry after 8pm would be a barrier. And we heard that from customers, both from a residential customer side and then from a business customer side. We heard that changing their business hours outside of that twelve to eight window would be very difficult.”

The power company found the most energy was saved when the utility itself used the smart meter to shutdown things like air conditioners during periods of high demand.

The customers said they liked the “set it and forget it” approach – so long as they could override the system if they needed to.

For The Environment Report, I’m Mark Brush.

Related Links

Lake Algae and Lou Gehrig’s

  • Example of cyanobacteria blooms on Bow Lake in Bow, New Hampshire (Photo courtesy New Hampshire Department of Environmental Services)

There’s a kind of blue and green scum that can bloom in lakes and ponds across the nation. This scum is called cyanobacteria. For years, scientists have known that this stuff can produce dangerous toxins. Amy Quinton reports now researchers are studying whether there’s a link between cyanobacteria and Lou Gehrig’s disease:

Transcript

There’s a kind of blue and green scum that can bloom in lakes and ponds across the nation. This scum is called cyanobacteria. For years, scientists have known that this stuff can produce dangerous toxins. Amy Quinton reports now researchers are studying whether there’s a link between cyanobacteria and Lou Gehrig’s disease:

Jody Conner reaches into his refrigerator in his lab.

“This is the cyanobacteria that we’ve collected. This one comes from Harvey Lake. See how green that sample is?”

He’s the Director of New Hampshire’s Limnology Center.

Conner has been collecting samples of cyanobacteria from lakes across New Hampshire.

It looks like green scummy algae on the surface of the water that can be several inches thick.

But it’s actually bacteria.

Conner says cyanobacteria feed on nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen that can come from runoff of lawn fertilizers or sewage.

“They need sunlight, phosphorus, and they seem to like the warmer waters. So, they really grow in mass numbers when they have all three of those.”

Jim Haney is a professor of biological sciences at the University of New Hampshire.

He says, in high enough concentrations, some cyanobacteria blooms can produce more than 70 different kind of liver toxins called microcystins.

“That scum can be toxic enough that it’s been estimated that only about 17 milliliters is enough to kill a small child. 17 milliliters is just a couple of teaspoons.”

Cyanobacteria blooms can also produce neurotoxins.

Haney, and other researchers, have embarked on research to find out if there’s a connection between cyanobacteria and patient’s with Lou Gherig’s disease – also known as ALS.

The research began when Doctor Elijah Stommel began mapping hundreds of ALS patients across New Hampshire.

Stommel is a neurologist at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center.

He noticed the incidence of ALS was 2.5 times greater than the national rate around lakes known to have had significant cyanobacteria blooms.

Stommel says he found a particularly high cluster of patients on one lake in the western part of the state.

“We were able to establish that there appeared to be about a 25 fold increase in what one would expect to see for the ALS incidence.”

But he’s not sure if cyanobacteria are the culprit.

A few scientific studies have shown a particular type of neurotoxin found in cyanobacteria is also found in patients with ALS.

The neurotoxin is known as BMAA.

But it’s not known whether BMAA can trigger ALS.

Jim Haney says more research is needed.

“We know that, in the laboratory, a wide range of different types of cyanobacteria are able to produce BMAA. So, one of our goals this summer is to determine whether there are BMAA molecules in our lakes.”

So far, researchers haven’t found BMAA, and there are still a lot of unknowns about how people could be exposed.

Do you have to drink it or can you breathe it in the air?
How long do you need to be exposed to it before it causes damage?

Again, Doctor Elijah Stommel.

“If there is a link between cyanobacteria blooms and the toxins they make, and a neurodegenerative disease like ALS, then I think we should pursue that with as much vigor as we can. And I think the neurology literature would suggest there is an environmental trigger for ALS.”

But, scientists have not yet found that link.

If they do, Stommel says that link might help find ways to prevent the dangerous toxins, or block their effects.

For The Environment Report, I’m Amy Quinton.

Related Links

Avoiding a Climate Tipping Point

  • If the global temperature goes past 2 degrees Celsius - the danger point - we might not be able to get the climate back to a more natural state (Photo courtesy of NASA)

Two new studies in the journal Nature are trying to answer: how much is too much when it comes to global warming? Rebecca Williams reports:

Transcript

Two new studies in the journal Nature are trying to answer: how much is too much when it comes to global warming? Rebecca Williams reports:

These studies look at what we’d have to do to keep global temperatures from rising more than two degrees Celsius.

That’s considered the danger point for climate change.

Past that point we might not be able to get the climate back to a more natural state.

These papers suggest that we’ve got to cut back on burning fossil fuels a lot. They say by 2050, countries like the US need to cut emissions by more than 90% below what they were in 1990.

The White House and Democratic leaders in Congress have proposed cutting emissions by less than that – 80%.

The researchers make the point… of all the coal and oil and natural gas in the ground that we know about, we can only burn one fourth of that amount by 2050.

We’re burning it at a much faster rate.

The studies say, at the current rate, we could be past that tipping point in less than 15 years.

For The Environment Report, I’m Rebecca Williams.

Related Links

Money Over Mother Nature

  • A Gallup poll finds people feel the economy should be given priority over the environment (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

A new poll shows Americans put money over Mother Nature. Lester Graham reports it amounts to a real shift in attitudes:

Transcript

A new poll shows Americans put money over Mother Nature. Lester Graham reports it amounts to a real shift in attitudes:

A Gallup poll finds people feel the economy should be given priority over the environment.

51% think so. 42% still think the environment is more important.

Frank Newport, Gallup Poll Editor-in-Chief, says Gallup has been asking this same question every year for 25 years.

“This is the first time that we have had more Americans say growth should be given the priority not the environment. So, it’s a fairly dramatic and significant change this year.”

Newport says the results reflect people’s concerns about keeping their jobs and keeping their homes in this economy.

He concedes the issue is not just black and white – the environment versus the economy.

Jobs are being created in a shift to greener fuels and energy efficiency. But apparently that’s not clear to the American public. Newport suggests that might be the challenge facing people in the environmental movement.

For The Environment Report, I’m Lester Graham.

Related Links

Paying for Peak Power

  • Advanced, individual meters that calibrate energy prices for each apartment. (Photo by Samara Freemark)

Energy prices are rising, and people are looking
for ways to conserve power. But some rate payers are
saving money without actually cutting their energy use.
Instead they’re changing when they use power. Samara
Freemark reports:

Transcript

Energy prices are rising, and people are looking
for ways to conserve power. But some rate payers are
saving money without actually cutting their energy use.
Instead they’re changing when they use power. Samara
Freemark reports:

It’s Saturday morning, and Ellen and Peter Funk are doing laundry.

The Funks used to do chores when most people do – they would get home from work and
switch on their dishwasher, dryer, and computer. They never really paid attention to
what that meant for their electricity bill.

“I never thought about electricity before. Never, never, never. Except when I got the bill.
But, you didn’t have any control. Because you paid the same price whether you used it at 2 in
the morning or 2 in the afternoon.”

But a couple of years ago the Funks started paying for their electricity differently than the
rest of us. They live in one of only a handful of buildings in New York City that
participate in a Real Time Pricing program.

Real Time Pricing charges consumers a different rate depending on when they use power.

The Funks know that running their dishwasher or turning on a light will cost more at 5
pm than at 10 pm. That’s because they get a color-coded chart every month that breaks
down their energy prices by time block.

“The green here is low. And the green starts at 10 o’clock at night and goes through 1
o’clock the following afternoon. The yellow is medium from 2 to 5 every day. And then
Monday to Friday there’s a high period from 5 to 9. That means stop. I think that’s why
they used red.”

It’s the same concept that makes cell phone minutes cost more during the day. Power
costs more when more people want to use it.

Real Time Pricing can save consumers a lot of money. Peter Funk says his family saves
hundreds of dollars a year by just shifting when they use energy.

“It’s an ongoing savings. We do these things because they make sense economically. We
don’t do it because we’re virtuous, we don’t do it because we’re better than our neighbor.
We just, this is the way we buy electricity because it makes sense.”

Real Time Pricing programs shift around power demand, so fewer people use energy
during peak hours. A Department of Energy study earlier this year estimated that Real
Time Pricing programs could cut peak energy use by about 15%.

That could actually help regions improve air quality and conserve resources by
decommissioning old, polluting power plants. Here’s how.

Most areas have a network of power plants. Usually only a few of those plants – the
newest, cleanest ones – are in use. But when energy demand peaks, the older, less
efficient plants kick in. And those plants spew a lot of carbon dioxide and other
pollutants into the air.

“It’s really not the number of power of power plants, but the ones you have to turn on at
critical times.”

Jim Genarro is a New York City councilman. He also chairs the council’s Committee on
Environmental Protection.

He says the plants that kick in when demand peaks are the worst in the system.

“We have a lot of reserve capacity in the city, but these are the older, dirtier plants, and
when you run those at peak capacity, it really means a lot of pollution.”

And Genarro says those plants cost even when they’re not producing energy. The city
has to maintain them all the time so they can switch on when needed. That wastes energy
and resources. It also means there are power plants that are only used a few weeks, or
even days, a year.

If power companies could cut peak energy demand, rarely-used, polluting plants could
become totally unnecessary. And many could be shut down.

For The Environment Report, I’m Samara Freemark.

Related Links

Report Warns Insurers to Face Climate Change

Insurance companies are being urged to face the risks associated with climate change. The world’s oldest insurance market says recent natural disasters have shown the need for new pricing and underwriting models for insurers. The GLRC’s Erin Toner reports:

Transcript

Insurance companies are being urged to face the risks associated with climate change.
The world’s oldest insurance market says recent natural disasters have shown the need
for new pricing and underwriting models for insurers. The GLRC’s Erin Toner reports.


Lloyd’s of London’s new report says the costs of climate change could put insurers out of
business if they don’t make some changes. The report says insurance companies have
been slow to manage the financial risks of emerging threats, such as rising sea levels and
the build-up of greenhouse gases. Rolf Tolle is with Lloyd’s of London.


“You will have maybe certain changes in coverage which is available. You will see
changes in pricing. And you may have for certain, very exposed risks, a situation
that insurance is flatly no longer available.”


Tolle says insurers should take climate change predictions into account when setting
rates, rather than simply relying on historical weather patterns. Last year was the costliest
year ever for the insurance industry – mainly because of hurricanes that hit the U.S.


For the GLRC, I’m Erin Toner.

Related Links