Another Major Study Shows Consistent Correlation Between Cancer Incidence and Proximity to Operating Reactors
Nukewatch Quarterly Fall 2014
By Ian Fairlie, The Ecologist
Controversy has been raging for decades over the link between nuclear power stations and childhood leukemia. But as with tobacco and lung cancer, it’s all about hiding the truth. Combining data from four countries shows, with high statistical significance, that radioactive releases from nuclear reactors are the cause of the excess leukemia cases.
I can think of no other area of toxicology (e.g. asbestos, lead, smoking) with so many studies, and with such clear associations as those between nuclear power reactors and child leukemias.
In March 2014, after a year-long peer review process, my article on increased rates of childhood leukemias near nuclear reactors was published in the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity.1
My previous article — “Childhood Leukemias Near Nuclear Power Stations”2 — discussed the making of the article and its high readership: this article describes its content in non-technical terms.
Before we start, some background is necessary to grasp the new report’s significance. Many readers may be unaware that increased childhood leukemias near reactors have been a contentious issue for several decades.
For example, it was a huge issue in the UK in the 1980s and early 1990s, leading to several TV programs, government commissions, government committees, a major international conference, government reports, at least two mammoth court cases and probably over a hundred scientific articles.
It was refueled in 1990 by the publication of the famous Gardner report on lymphoma in young people near Sellafield, which found a very large increase (seven fold) in child leukemias near the nuclear facility in Cumbria, England.3
Over 60 epidemiological studies confirm the link
The controversy may have subsided in England, but it is still hotly debated in most European countries, especially Germany.
The core issue is that, world-wide, over 60 epidemiological studies have examined cancer incidences in children near reactors: almost 70% of them indicate leukemia increases.
Yet many 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 climate change causation nowadays.
In early 2007, the debate was partly rekindled by the renowned KiKK study4 commissioned by the German government, which found a 60% increase in total cancers and 120% increase in leukemias among children under five years old living within five kilometers of all German reactors.
What is “statistically significant”?
As a result of Germany’s surprising findings, governments in France, Switzerland and England hurriedly set up studies near their own reactors. 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.
This does not mean there were no increases. Indeed if less strict statistical tests had been applied, the results would have been “statistically significant.”
But most people are easily bamboozled by statistics — including scientists who should know better — and the strict 95% level tests were eagerly grasped by governments wishing to avoid unwelcome findings. Indeed, many tests nowadays in this area use a 90% level. In such situations, scientists need to combine data-sets in a meta-study, to get larger numbers and thus reach higher levels of statistical significance.
Governments wouldn’t study it — so we did
The four governments refrained from doing this because they knew what the answer would be. Namely: statistically significant increases in cancer cases near almost all reactors in the four countries. So Alfred Korblein and I did it for them.5 Sure enough, there were statistically significant increases near all the reactors. Sure enough, there were statistically significant increases. The table on page 6 reveals a highly significant 37% increase in childhood leukemias within five kilometers of almost all power reactors in the UK,Germany, France and Switzerland.
It’s perhaps not surprising that the latter three countries have announced reactor phase-outs and withdrawals. It is only the UK government that remains in denial.
So the matter is now beyond question. There is a very clear association between increased child leukemias and proximity to reactors. The question remains: What causes them?
Observed risk 10,000 times greater than “expected”
Most people worry about radioactive emissions and direct radiation from the reactors, however any theory involving radiation has a major difficulty to overcome: How to account for the large (about 10,000 fold) discrepancy between official dose estimates from reactor emissions and the clearly-observed increased risks?
My explanation does involve radiation. It stems from KiKK’s principal finding that the increased incidences of infant and child leukemias were closely associated with proximity to the reactor chimneys.
It also stems from the KiKK study’s observation that the increased solid cancers were mostly “embryonal,” i.e. babies were born either with solid cancers or with pre-cancerous tissues which, after birth, developed into full-blown tumors: this actually happens with leukemia as well.
My explanation has five main elements:
- First: The cancer increases may be due to radiation exposures from radioactive emissions to air from reactors.
- Second: Large annual spikes in reactor emissions may result in increased dose rates to populations within five kilometers of the reactors.
- Third: Observed cancers may arise in utero in pregnant women.
- Fourth: Both the doses and their risks to embryos and to fetuses may be greater than the current estimate.
- Fifth: Pre-natal blood-forming cells in bone marrow may be unusually radiosensitive.
Together these five factors offer a possible explanation for the discrepancy between estimated radiation doses from reactor releases and the risks observed by Germany’s KiKK study. These factors are discussed in considerable detail in the full article.
No errors or omissions have been pointed out
My article in fact shows that the current discrepancy can be explained. The leukemia increases observed by the KiKK study and by many others may arise in utero as a result of embryonal/fetal exposures to incorporated radionuclides from reactors’ radioactive emissions.
Large emission spikes from reactors [as during refueling operations] might produce a pre-leukemic clone, and, after birth, a second radiation hit might transform a few of these clones into full-blown leukemia cells. The affected babies are born pre-leukemic (which is invisible) and the full leukemias are only diagnosed within the first few years after birth.
To date, no letters to the Journal of Environmental Radioactivity have been received pointing out errors or omissions in this report.
— Dr. Ian Fairlie, an independent consultant on radioactivity in the environment, was Chief Secretariat of Britain’s CERRIE group which examines internal radiation risks.
1 Fairlie, “A hypothesis to explain childhood cancers near nuclear power plants,” Journal of Environmental Radioactivity, Vol. 133 (2014). <http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0265931X13001811>
2 Fairlie, “Childhood Leukemias Near Nuclear Power Stations” (July 25, 2014). <www.ianfairlie.org/news/childhood-leukemias-near-nuclear-power-stations-482-downloads>
3 Gardner, et al, “Results of case-control study of leukaemia and lymphoma among young people near Sellafield nuclear plant in West Cumbria,” British Medical Journal, Vol. 300 (1990); and Bunch, et al, “Updated investigations of cancer excesses in individuals born or resident in the vicinity of Sellafield and Dounreay,” British Journal of Cancer (July 22, 2014). <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25051410>
4 Kaatsch, et al, “Leukaemia in young children living in the vicinity of German nuclear power plants” (the KiKK study), International Journal of Cancer, Vol. 122, No. 4 (2008) <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.23330/full>
5 Körblein and Fairlie, “French Geocap study confirms increased leukaemia risks in young children near nuclear power plants,” International Journal of Cancer, Vol. 131, No. 12 (2012).
6 Spycher, et al, “Childhood cancer and nuclear power plants in Switzerland: A census based cohort study,” International Journal of Epidemiology (July, 12, 2011). <http://ije.oxfordjournals.org/content/early/2011/07/11/ije.dyr115.full>