Nuclear reactors and childhood leukemia: the risk exists.

Part of the Sellafield nuclear complex in the U.K. Photo from Greenpeace UK.

Part of the massive Sellafield nuclear complex in the U.K. Photo from Greenpeace UK.

The issue of whether children living near nuclear reactors are more susceptible to childhood leukemia has long been a controversial issue, especially in Europe, where numerous studies have found significantly increased risk for leukemia among children living near reactors.

In 1990, a particularly noted report (the Gardner report) found the risk of leukemia among children near the U.K.’s Sellafield facility to be seven times higher than for children living away from nuclear facilities.

Here in the U.S., the controversy has been far less conspicuous, despite a few similar studies around selected reactors, perhaps because the nuclear industry has been more successful at quashing such studies as soon as they appear. 

This week in the U.K., a new study conducted through the auspices of Newcastle University purports to show that there is no increased risk of leukemia among children living near Sellafield or the Dounreay facility in Scotland.

But that study, while new, remains an outlier. In March 2014, Dr. Ian Fairlie published an article in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity on childhood cancer and proximity to nuclear facilities, and this week he reprised the theme on his blog.  Dr. Fairlie was co-author of the authoritative TORCH report on the effects of the Chernobyl disaster, and has been studying the link between radiation and childhood cancer for many years.

Writes Dr. Fairlie:

“The core issue is that, world-wide, over 60 epidemiological studies have examined cancer incidences in children near nuclear power plants (NPPs): most (>70%) indicate leukemia increases. I can think of no other area of toxicology (eg asbestos, lead, smoking) with so many studies, and with such clear associations as those between NPPs and child leukemias. Yet many nuclear Governments and the nuclear industry refute these findings and continue to resist their implications. It’s similar to the situations with cigarette smoking in the 1960s and with man-made global warming nowadays.”

Dr. Fairlie goes on to say:

“In early 2009, the debate was partly rekindled by the renowned KiKK study (Kaatsch et al, 2008) commissioned by the German Government which found a 60% increase in total cancers and 120% increase in leukemias among children under 5 years old living within 5 km of all German NPPs. As a result of these surprising findings, governments in France, Switzerland and the UK hurriedly set up studies near their own NPPs. All found leukemia increases but because their numbers were small the increases lacked “statistical significance”. That is, you couldn’t be 95% sure the findings weren’t chance ones.”

Dr. Fairlie and a colleague then set out to prove a statistical significance by combining the datasets from those studies into a meta-study.

The result: “…a highly statistically significant 37% increase in childhood leukemias within 5 km of almost all NPPs in the UK, Germany, France and Switzerland. It’s perhaps not surprising that the latter 3 countries have announced nuclear phaseouts and withdrawals. It is only the UK government that remains in denial.”

Actually, the U.S. government—and many others—remain in denial too, and are likely to cite the Newcastle University study if the issue even comes up. The controversy is not going to go away, but the bulk of the evidence points toward a clear higher risk for leukemia among children living near nuclear reactors than for those living further away. And even if it is difficult—perhaps even impossible—to fully prove that higher risk, why should any parent be forced to take that additional risk when there are safer and cleaner ways to generate the electricity we all use.

Michael Mariotte

July 29, 2014


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7 thoughts on “Nuclear reactors and childhood leukemia: the risk exists.

  1. Buzz Davies

    Perhaps you would like to see my detail data about the cancer plots and rates in Erwin, TN and Shelton Laurel, NC after the 1979 releases of Hundreds of Pounds of Highly Enriched Uranium (235) Hexafluoride Gas. Cancer rates in areas where population densities are 20 per mile are as high as 10 per mile (or 50%) How about the 800 radiation caused cancer lawsuits in Apollo PA where the Army Corp of Engineers has for years now been struggling with decontamination? How about Rocky Flat CO where the book “Our Nuclear Neighborhood” delieates over 1,500 radiation illnesses and the NRC has isolated 10,000 acres of Plutonium contaminated land adjacent to the Plant as a no human entry wildlife preserve?

    Buzz Davies Nuclear Quality Engineer, Retired

  2. andrewblarkin

    Reblogged this on Vernon Radiation Safety and commented:
    This reports to be a mega study of all the studies looking at the incidence of childhood leukemia within 5 km around nuclear power plants. This study reports that there is a 37% increase. Report goes on to stay that there is great denial about the dangers of radiation in the United States, Much like the denial about the dangers of cigarette smoking

    1. Peter Sipp

      It finally dawned on me. With my decades of working in paper mills/chemical plants and hospitals as a pipe welder I understand why sailors on atomic subs do not come down with cancer/leukemia :— Those elements are vented outside the vessel into the ocean. Land based reactors are not able to move and can not “deposit” the harmful elements to be dispersed by the ocean as a sub can. Land based reactors are surrounded by OUR atmosphere. The prevailing winds are all that are available to disperse the cancer/leukemia causing elements. No wonder that there are so many people coming down with cancer/leukemia down wind of land based reactors.

      1. Greg

        “No wonder that there are so many people coming down with cancer/leukemia down wind of land based reactors”

        There are? Do you have some numbers you can point to?

      2. Peter Sipp

        Hi Greg, Do you not get Mr. Davies comments above mine? The atomic power “industry” refutes any bad news about their doings. You probably work for them and want to ignore reality too.

  3. Pingback: 7.31.14DailyLinks | Daily Links & News

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