Cancer Politics

Photo by Mike McGillWith dozens of agingnuclear reactors around the country scheduled for dismantling in the next several years, cleaning up the mess of the half-century-long horror show known as the "Atomic Age" promises to be a controversial, time-consuming and expensive process. The U.S. nuclear industry hopes to convince the public that, among other things, radioactively contaminated materials can be safely recycled into useful products—even household goods—instead of being boxed up and buried somewhere in Nevada for the next 10,000 years.

In the National Academy of Science's (NAS) Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR) committee, the nuclear industry may have a powerful ally. BEIR, a paragon of scientific credibility, is now in a position to recommend that the U.S. government lower federal radiation health-risk standards on nuclear radiation —thus vastly reducing the costs of the upcoming cleanup effort.

On Dec. 16 and 17, the BEIR committee held a series of meetings at UC Irvine's Beckman Center to discuss the health effects of radiation.
Almost all of those meetings occurred behind closed doors, and few members of the public—including Orange County neighbors of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS)—were even aware they took place.

The BEIR committee reports directly to the federal Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the Department of Energy (DOE) and the U.S. Department of Defense, all of which fund its research. All three agencies operate nuclear facilities in the U.S.; their close-working counterparts in the private sector, such as Edison International, which operates SONGS, are powerful multinational corporations that fund the majority of radiation research by scientists around the world—including some of those on the BEIR panel.

On Aug. 30, a group of eight scientists led by Dr. Steve Wing, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's School of Public Health, sent a letter to the NAS complaining about the lack of balance on the BEIR panel. "The current BEIR VII panel is dominated by individuals . . . with interests in the nuclear industry and does not include a significant number of persons who have demonstrated independence from this institution setting in their peer-reviewed publications," the group wrote.

Allegations of conflict of interest and scientific bias have already forced the NAS to drop from the committee two scientists whose ties to the nuclear industry were deemed too close. Nonetheless, the latest panel—BEIR VII—is still made up almost entirely of scientists who happen to believe that the dangers of nuclear radiation have been vastly overstated.

One such panelist is Dr. Albrecht Kellerer, director of the Radiobiology Institute at the University of Munich. Kellerer proposes that the United States' and other countries' radiation-risk estimates should be dramatically reduced, asserting that the risk to the general public posed by nuclear technology is "minute." Another advocate of lowering radiation-risk estimates is Dr. K. Sankaranarayanan, a professor emeritus at the Leiden University Medical Centre in the Netherlands. Sankaranarayanan argues that the human body has an "adaptive response" to radiation exposure, a controversial thesis that purports that people who are continuously exposed to low levels of radiation become less susceptible to radiation-related health problems over time instead of more susceptible.

Dr. Scott Davis, a scientist with the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, is yet another BEIR panelist who believes that radiation has been getting a bad rap. Davis authored a highly controversial study of thyroid cancers downwind of the DOE's Hanford nuclear facility in Washington state. Despite numerous studies demonstrating that radioactive iodine causes thyroid cancer, and despite the limitations of his nine-year study (thyroid cancer can take years or decades to appear in radiation victims), Davis has claimed that his research proves the massive release of the chemical from the Hanford plant had clearly caused no harm to the public.

More disturbing is the background of panelist Dr. Daniel Krewski, a University of Ottawa professor. Krewski also serves on the board of BELLE, a Canadian-based scientific organization that promotes "hormesis," the theory that small doses of nuclear radiation are actually healthy for the human body.

Panelist Dr. Elisabeth Cardis of the Lyon-based International Agency for Research on Cancer has authored a radiation-cancer study that just happens to be the one most frequently cited by the nuclear industry as support for its claim that the health risk posed by low-dose radiation is overstated. While one of Cardis' co-authors on that study, Dr. Ethel S. Gilbert, a special expert with the National Cancer Institute, also serves on the BEIR panel, none of the several scientists who have criticized Cardis and Gilbert's research was invited to join the committee.

"No one was invited to participate from the anti-radiation side of the debate," asserted Daniel Hirsch, executive director of the California-based environmental group Committee to Bridge the Gap. His organization is one of more than 70 environmental groups nationwide that continue to protest the makeup of the BEIR committee. "This committee is a completely stacked deck. If the imbalance is not dramatically rectified, it will lead to significant increases in the amount of radiation that polluting nuclear industries and agencies can release and significant increases in cancer to workers and the public."

At the public-comment section of the UCI meeting, Jonathan Parfrey, executive director of the Nobel Prize-winning Physicians for Social Responsibility (PSR), warned the BEIR panel that its failure to include scientists who believe U.S. radiation health-risk standards are already too low could constitute a violation of the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires balance of membership, openness to the public and avoidance of conflicts of interest. Parfrey told the BEIR committee that PSR would prefer to "appeal to the better angels of your nature so that you pursue a course that protects public health."

Parfrey's statements didn't go over well among some committee members, a few of whom gasped and groaned in reaction to his allegation that the panel was biased. Particularly upset was Cardis, who asserted that she was "very puzzled and very shocked" by PSR's allegations, claiming that she is a former member of PSR. "I don't know where your information is coming from," she exclaimed. "We are just as concerned as you are about the harmful effects of radiation, and I think we're being unjustly accused."

Several other activists also showed up at UCI to register their protests. Marion Pack of the Orange County Alliance for Survival and Alan White, an executive council member of the OC Green Party, read statements and submitted letters blasting the NAS for inviting only scientists from one side of a very important debate.

But some of the most compelling testimony came from Rob Campbell, a veteran of the U.S. military's 1950s-era radiation tests in southern Nevada. Campbell addressed the BEIR committee on behalf of the Atomic Veterans Radiation Research Institute via videotaped comments.

"We do not approve of this or any other scientific proceeding in which knowledgeable people are excluded," Campbell told committee members. "I am at a loss as to why you do not have the courage to say that you will not serve on this panel unless these other scientists are included. This is your debt to science and to your conscience."

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