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BMJ. 2008 January 5; 336(7634): 13.
PMCID: PMC2174775

Research sparks public concern about risk from nuclear power

German research shows that children younger than 5 years old who live near nuclear power stations are more likely to have leukaemia than otherwise (International Journal of Cancer 2007;122:721-6; European Journal of Cancer 2007 Dec 12 doi: 10.1016/j.ejca.2007.10.024). This has started controversial public discussions about the risks of power stations. Opponents of nuclear power have demanded the closure of all 16 German nuclear power stations.

However, the research did not show that radiation from nearby power stations was the cause of a higher incidence of cancer, the authors say, because no radiation leaks had occurred, and the level of radiation near the stations was substantially lower than in normal exposure.

The research was carried out by the German Register of Child Cancer in Mainz (www.kinderkrebsregister.de/english), financed by the German Federal Radiation Protection Agency, the government agency that advises on nuclear health.

The case-control study was initiated because previous epidemiological studies had already indicated higher risks among children who live near nuclear plants. The research looked at 1592 cases of leukaemia from the child cancer registry between 1980 and 2003 and compared them with randomly chosen control children in the same area. Thirty seven cases of leukaemia were diagnosed between 1980 and 2003 among children who lived within 5 km (3.1 miles) of a nuclear power plant. The statistical average for Germany would have predicted just 17 cases in that group.

The authors of the study, Maria Blettner and Peter Kaatsch, were convinced of the epidemiological relevance of their study but had no explanation for the surplus of leukaemia cases: “The current state of knowledge on radiobiology does not explain why more children living near power stations have more cancer.” The authors speculate that other unknown causes may have led to the rise in the number of cases.

The government’s radiation protection agency said that statistically the 20 extra cases could be associated with living close to the plants, but more research was needed to discover whether the presence of reactors was the cause of the cancers.

Germany’s environment minister, Sigmar Gabriel, cautioned the public not to panic. “The population’s radiation exposure due to the operation of nuclear power plants in Germany would have to be at least a thousand times higher to be able to explain the observed increase in cancer risk,” he said. Further research should be able to explain the increased number of cancer cases, he added.

“Leukaemia clusters around nuclear installations was a hot topic in Britain in the 1980s,” said Hazel Inskip, professor of statistical epidemiology at the University of Southampton and deputy director of the Medical Research Council’s epidemiology resource centre. “The cluster near the Sellafield nuclear plant led to an expensive civil court case. The clusters were never convincingly explained by radiation exposure per se, and other avenues have been explored. The baton has been handed to Germany.”

Professor Inskip worked on radiation issues in the 1980s and 1990s and was involved in the Sellafield case when Martin Gardner, who conducted much of the research on the Sellafield cluster, fell ill. A 1996 report from the Committee of the Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment reported that the higher number of cases could not be explained (BMJ 1996;312:865).


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