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Study Assessing Risk of Nuclear Plants in US State of Illinois

An Environmental Protection Agency RadNet (radiation network) monitor is shown on the roof of the Bay Area Air Quality Management building in San Francisco, March 28, 2011
An Environmental Protection Agency RadNet (radiation network) monitor is shown on the roof of the Bay Area Air Quality Management building in San Francisco, March 28, 2011

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Kane Farabaugh

The Midwest state of Illinois, with six nuclear power plants, is home to the largest network of nuclear facilities in the United States.  The U.S. Department of Energy says Illinois' nuclear-generation capacity is greater than that of any other state, and of most nations in the world.  A current study by the National Academies of Sciences is assessing the risk those nuclear facilities pose to the people who live near them.

The Braidwood Generating Station began operations in Illinois in 1988.  The facility can produce enough electricity to power two million homes.

Almost five million people live within 80 kilometers of the plant, including Maureen Heddington. "I think that there is a level of mistrust that runs so deeply," she said.

Some of that mistrust stems from radioactive tritium leaks.  In 2007, residents and local governments near the plant sued Exelon, the company that runs Braidwood.  They claimed the tritium leaks had contaminated drinking wells.  In 2010, Exelon settled the suit by providing money for environmental cleanup projects in the affected communities.

But the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, or NRC, which oversees facilities in the United States, said the tritium leaks fell below the federal safety limits. "Every nuclear power plant has radioactive material - effluents - very small amounts released that are under the federal regulatory limits, said Viktoria Mitlyng, a Public Affairs Officer for the Nuclear Regulatory Commission.  

She said much of the information the NRC relies on to determine regulatory limits, and how releases might impact health, is several decades old.

"The last study was done about 20 years ago.  Some of the methodologies were outdated.  And so we thought it was time to really get a closer look at the information available today and we asked the National Academies of Sciences to conduct the study as a neutral scientific body," she said.

John Burris is the chair of the National Academy of Sciences' cancer risk study, sponsored by the NRC. "This meeting is part of five meetings that we're using to gather information to help us write a report that will look at the cancer risk assessment of individuals living near nuclear facilities," he said.

The study group's latest meeting in suburban Chicago comes in the wake of the tsunami in Japan, which damaged the Fukushima-Daiichi nuclear plant, resulting in dangerous radiation leaks.  The crisis, which continues to unfold, has raised global awareness of the perils of nuclear energy.

But Burris says the committee, which includes scientists, doctors and radiation experts from around the world, is not necessarily focused on catastrophic releases of radiation.

"We’re talking about the normal day-to-day activities of nuclear power plants and the people that live near them.  Certainly, incidents like Fukushima and Chernobyl alert the public, but those will probably provide very limited input into this particular study," he said.

What Burris says will not be limited in the study is input from the public.  Members of nearby communities in the shadow of one of Illinois’ six nuclear plants - like Braidwood - were invited to attend the meeting and express their concerns.

Viktoria Mitlyng says she hopes public access to the meetings will help repair some of the mistrust that exists.

"The mere fact that we are commissioning this study, [and that it] should be conducted by an independent, highly esteemed, scientific body should say something about where our priorities are," she said.

The Committee will hold similar meetings in Atlanta and Los Angeles later this year.  They hope to conclude the study and issue a final report to the Nuclear Regulatory Commission by the end of the year.

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