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Harvard launches two studies of Pilgrim nuclear plant health risks

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A Harvard professor who studies human exposure to air pollution is turning his attention to the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station. He’s working on two new studies. One will analyze cancer data near Pilgrim and other nuclear power plants; the other will seek to measure radioactivity exposure in local residents. In this interview, CAI reporter Jennette Barnes talks with Petros Koutrakis, professor of environmental sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

Petros Koutrakis is professor of environmental sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Petros Koutrakis is professor of environmental sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

JENNETTE BARNES: You'd like to collect some public health data, possibly biometric data, from around Pilgrim, and you may also be doing it at some other nuclear sites as well. But please tell me more.

PETROS KOUTRAKIS: What we are doing right now, we have data about cancer incidence in different towns of Massachusetts, from 2008 to 2017. And we just applied to get the rest of the data from 2017 to date. So we hope to get this data soon. And we will try to see the effects not just of Pilgrim, but Seabrook and the Yankee power plants, on incidence of cancer for men and women. So that's one aspect. The other aspect is that we're getting some money from our school. This is a small amount of money, hopefully to do some blood collection. The purpose for this would be to do some pilot to measure any kind of biomarkers, like DNA damage, and try to measure some radionuclides. This is going to be on a limited number of people, and we hope these results will help us to obtain more funding. So this is going to take longer, but we hope the results I talked about, the incidence of cancer, hopefully we can have the final results by the end of the spring, once we get the other half of the data.

BARNES: For the second study, you said you've got some money from the school. You mean from Harvard?

KOUTRAKIS: Yes, to collect some blood samples for people different distances from the power plant, Pilgrim. Unfortunately, that amount is small. It's less than $20,000. So we cannot do many people, but we hope to store the samples and to write the larger proposal. And also we need to understand that the problems now with the evaporation of the wastewater which produces tritium, it's something that happened since last February. And the incidences of cancer we're looking at, they have to do with long-term exposures, over the years. So, the study we will publish, probably it will not focus on what is happening right now, but maybe the blood analysis may give us some indication about the evaporation of the water right now, which started, as I said, in February.

BARNES: How far away will you be checking people in the blood analysis? How many miles away from Pilgrim?

KOUTRAKIS: There are two kinds of criteria. The one is the distance. And based on our experience with preliminary analysis, I don't think we should go beyond 30 kilometers. Or maybe we can do some 50 kilometers, as a background. And in terms of the wind direction, I think we need to be downwind. And the prevailing winds, we need to do the wind direction analysis. And also the problem we have in this specific plant in Massachusetts is, it’s by the water. And we have this day and night breeze, sea breeze, which makes things a little bit complicated in terms of the prevailing winds. But with 50 samples — we're planning about 50 samples — you don't really have much choice in terms of the spatial and temporal distribution of the samples. This is just to see if we have enough sensitivity to do a larger analysis — that's the whole idea.

BARNES: How concerned are you about this recent increase in the evaporation at Pilgrim by the installation of heaters?

KOUTRAKIS: I mean, we know that there is tritium which is emitted. I don't think there are studies that indicate any kind of associations with specific — definitely I wouldn't expect this is good for you, but, I don't know if it's enough, and the long term is enough. I don't know. I really don't speculate. I think more, the long-term exposure probably is also very important. It's very hard to study this because let's say you have an exposure, probably it will take some years to find any kind of effect. So I don't think we can easily identify these effects. That's the reason we wanted to do the biomarker analysis.

BARNES: What would your message be right now to people who live near Pilgrim and are worried?

KOUTRAKIS: Well, for what happened in the past, I don't think we can change much. For now, I would say if they can go to Home Depot and get a couple of air cleaners, that's the one thing they need to do. And the other thing is that through the Board of Health, and through the politicians, to put pressure on the people there to stop this process and try to dispose of the water and the [nuclear fuel] rods in a proper way. It's more expensive, but this is the right thing to do.

BARNES: About that issue of what to do with the water, when they look at these different things — evaporation, dumping the water in the bay, and shipping it off to a disposal site somewhere else, or actually just storing it in Plymouth — what do you think is the best option?

KOUTRAKIS: If they are storing it in a safe way, it will not have much impact. But you know, there is always corrosion, always leaks, and who knows if somebody one day starts wasting, slowly, the water. But it's an option. But I think the more safe option is to ship it somewhere. Of course, you might have accidents during the transportation. Also, some of these areas are near Native lands, lands of Native people. So there are, of course, environmental justice issues, and I’m not familiar with where they will dispose of this. But the thing I can tell you with certainty is that they should not evaporate or dump in the bay. So that should stop right now. And we should put all the pressure we can. So that's my message. It’s very clear. For what has happened in the past, I think we hope, with rigorous research — and hopefully the Massachusetts Department of Public Health will collaborate and give us all the data we want. And I think our analysis of the Massachusetts data and the other analysis we do will really shed light so we can better protect people. If there is no effect, that's good. We need to know that. But if we do nothing, that doesn't mean that there is no risk, right?

BARNES: Thank you very much. I appreciate this so much.

KOUTRAKIS: You’re welcome. Take care.

This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Jennette Barnes is a reporter and producer. Named a Master Reporter by the New England Society of News Editors, she brings more than 20 years of news experience to CAI.