A federal agency wants to see if cancer rates are higher near nuclear power plants.

The Nuclear Regulatory Commission called on the National Academy of Sciences this month to investigate any links.

A 1991 study found no greater rate of the cancer deaths among 900,000 people who lived in the same county as a nuclear power plant compared with those who lived in counties without them.

New Jersey has two counties with the plants: Ocean County's Oyster Creek Generating Station in Lacey Township and Salem County's Salem 1, Salem 2 and Hope Creek plants, all in Lower Alloways Creek Township.

The authors of the 1991 study acknowledged its limitations since the counties studied represented large geographic areas.

"It does not prove the absence of any effect," the authors concluded.

The new study will try to identify correlations within a tighter geographic area, said Neil Sheehan, spokesman for the NRC.

"Over the years, we've been asked to update the last nationwide study of cancer and power plants," he said. "The time is right to do an update."

The Nuclear and Radiation Studies Board and the Institute of Medicine, two groups within the academy, will oversee the study, spokeswoman Jennifer Walsh said.

As with all academy studies, the group's findings will be made public over the Internet at www.nap.edu, she said.

"It's high time this study has been commissioned," said Joseph Mangano, an Ocean City resident and public-health researcher who directs the Radiation and Public Health Project.

The New York nonprofit group studies relationships between public health and low-level nuclear radiation. One of the group's long-term projects is to examine the level of radiation in the baby teeth of children who live near nuclear power plants.

"Why in 60 years has there been only one study? Federal regulators have consistently taken the position that low doses of radiation are harmless and, thus, there is no need to do a cancer study," Mangano said.

Congress has been scrutinizing the environmental impacts of aging power plants after several low-level radiation leaks such as the one last week at Salem 2. The United States is expanding nuclear energy under President Barack Obama with plans for two new plants in Georgia.

Public Service Energy Group, which owns the three Salem County plants, is investigating building a fourth.

The academy was commissioned in 1863 during President Abraham Lincoln's administration to advise the federal government over scientific matters. Its 2,100 members and 380 foreign associates - including 200 Nobel laureates - conduct hundreds of studies each year over diverse topics for government agencies.

Its last published studies included a look at the health of soldiers returning from war; reducing fuel consumption in trucks and averting Internet cyber-attacks.

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