A national radiation research group contends that cancer deaths in Burke County have risen dramatically since Plant Vogtle went online in the 1980s, but the nuclear power plant's operating company dismisses the findings as "erroneous."
The study by the New York-based Radiation and Public Health Project used mortality statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to compare death rates before and after Plant Vogtle's two commercial reactors went online in 1987 and 1989 respectively.
The study compared cancer deaths from the 1982-1990 period with those occurring from 1991 to 2002, said Joe Mangano, the organization's national coordinator.
The death rate per 100,000 population from all cancers in Burke County rose 24.2 percent during that period, while the same rate fell 1.4 percent for all of Georgia, he said. The average number of Burke County cancer deaths rose from 34 in the 1980s to 43 by 2002.
The group also examined deaths among infants younger than 1 year old in Burke County - and in 13 other communities around the country where nuclear facilities went online in the 1980s.
Those findings, which compared the 1985-87 period with 1988-90, included a 70.1 percent increase in Burke County infant deaths. The death rate per 100,000 population went from 13.71 to 23.31, reflecting an increase from 16 to 28 deaths, Mr. Mangano said.
During the same period, the statewide rate across Georgia went from 12.63 deaths per 100,000 population to 12.41 for a decrease of 1.7 percent.
The same study at 13 other counties with nuclear reactors found infant death rates declined as much as 27 percent in some areas and rose as much as 35 percent in others.
"That 70 percent we saw in Burke County was not matched by any others," he said. "It was far and away higher than any other community we looked at."
Steve Higginbottom, the communications director for Southern Nuclear, which operates Plant Vogtle, said the report is meaningless and draws "erroneous conclusions."
Residents of Burke County are not exposed to ambient radiation, and monitors throughout the region detect nothing more than naturally occurring "background levels," he said.
He cited a 1990 National Cancer Institute study that found no correlation between nuclear power plants and cancer rates among residents.
"That study covered 62 nuclear installations, 107 counties and 900,000 cancer deaths," Mr. Higginbottom said.
"The RPHP information references one plant, one county and 520 deaths. It is neither statistically valid nor scientifically credible," he said.
He also noted that Burke County might have a high number of residents with unhealthy lifestyles.
"The group fails to take into account the prevalence of important cancer risk factors, such as cigarette smoking and diet, which could account for the difference in rates," he said.
Mr. Mangano acknowledged there is no specific evidence of excessive or inappropriate radiation releases in Burke County, but he said the statistics are nonetheless troubling.
"I'm saying it is unusual and should be fully examined," he said.
The Radiation and Public Health Project is a nonprofit educational and scientific organization established by scientists and physicians dedicated to understanding the relationships between low-level nuclear radiation and public health.
The group has been involved in a controversial study known as the "tooth fairy project," in which children's baby teeth are analyzed for the presence of strontium-90, a radionuclide produced by nuclear reactors that also remains in the environment from nuclear bomb tests conducted in the United States.
"This material attaches to bones in teeth and stays a long time," Mr. Mangano said.
"We haven't done it in Georgia yet, but we know it helps calculate a dose. In other areas, we've found that counties closest to reactors can have 30 to 50 percent higher levels than distant counties," he said.
According to an article on the topic in E, an environmental magazine, strontium-90 enters human bodies through cow's milk, water and produce grown in soil exposed to radioactive runoff or contaminated rain.
Because it mimics the calcium needed to form teeth and bones, it easily permeates growing bodies and can can disturb bone marrow, where the white cells that ward off cancer and germs are created.
Although workers in the nuclear industry are closely monitored, Mr. Mangano said those workers also have access to better health care and generally have a healthier lifestyle.
"When you have a reactor in a poor, rural area, you are offering this radioactivity to an indigent population with poor housing and poor medical care," he said. "One would expect to see a greater increase in disease and death than other areas, and that's what came out."
Although nuclear industry officials and some scientists have long held that low levels of radiation are not harmful, a recent finding by a panel commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences concluded otherwise, according to The Associated Press.
After five years of study, the Committee on Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation concluded in a report released in June that even low doses of radiation pose a risk of cancer, and that there is no threshold below which exposure can be viewed as harmful.
"It is unlikely that there is a threshold below which cancers are not induced," said the report, although it added that at low doses "the number of radiation-induced cancers will be small." And it said cancers from such low-dose exposures might take many years to develop.
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