Pyramid Comment

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Sunday, June 06, 2010

Nuclear Contamination

Children living near nuclear facilities face an increased risk of cancer. Though a link has long been suspected, it has never (up until now) been proven. In the 1980s, studies revealed increased incidences of childhood leukaemia near the nuclear installations at Windscale (now Sellafield), Burghfield and Dounreay in the UK. Around German nuclear facilities, a similar effect was detected. The radiation doses from the nearby plants were judged too low to explain the increased leukaemia according to the official response. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment [COMARE] (responsible for advising the UK government), eventually concluded that an explanation remained unknown, though was unlikely to involve radiation. A rather sweeping statement in the absence of evidence. 

Epidemiological studies (last year) have appeared and researchers at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston carried out a meta-analysis of 17 research papers that covered 136 nuclear sites in the UK, Canada, France, the US, Germany, Japan and Spain. The incidence of leukaemia in children under 9 living close to the sites showed an increase of 14-21%, while death rates from the disease were raised by 5–24% depending on their proximity to the nuclear facilities: European Journal of Cancer Care vol 16,  p355.

A German study followed that found 14 cases of leukaemia compared to expectation (4 cases) between 1990 and 2005 in children living within 5 kilometres of the near Hamburg and becoming the largest leukaemia cluster near any nuclear power plant anywhere in the world: Environmental Health Perspectives.

Even more surprising, the results of KiKK studies were published this year in the International Journal of Cancer vol 122, p721 and the European Journal of Cancer vol 44, p275. Higher incidences of cancers were found and a stronger association with nuclear installations than all previous reports. A 60% increase in solid cancers and a 117% increase in leukaemia among young children living near all 16 large German nuclear facilities between 1980 - 2003. Those who developed cancer lived closer to nuclear power plants than randomly selected controls. Children living within 5 kilometres of the plants were more than twice as likely to contract cancer as those living further away, a finding that has been accepted by the German government. The KiKK studies received scant attention, but there was a public outcry and vocal media debate in Germany. No one is sure of the cause (or causes) of the extra cancers and coincidence has been ruled out.

Kinlen hypothesis (weak, but convenient argument) theorises that childhood leukaemia is caused by an unknown infectious agent introduced as a result of an influx of new people to the area concerned. The most obvious explanation for this increased risk was surprisingly also ruled out by the KiKK researchers: that radioactive discharges from the nearby nuclear installations were too low. The evidence on which this assertion is based is not clear.

Anyone who followed the argument in the 1980s and 1990s concerning the UK leukaemia clusters will recognise the similarities. A report in 2004 by the Committee Examining Radiation Risks of Internal Emitters [CERRIE] (set up by the UK) points out that the models used to estimate radiation doses from sources emitted from nuclear facilities are riddled with uncertainty. Faulty assumptions could have been made about how radioactive material is transported through the environment and taken up and retained by local residents.

Should radiation prove to be the cause of the cancers, how might local residents have been exposed? Most of the reactors in the KiKK study (pressurised water designs) were notable for their high emissions of
tritium, the radioactive isotope of hydrogen. Last year, a report on tritium published by the UK government concluded that its hazard risk should be doubled. Tritium is most commonly found incorporated into water molecules, a factor not fully taken into account in the report, so this could make it even more hazardous.

The new evidence of an association between increased cancers and proximity to nuclear facilities raises various important issues: should pregnant women and young children be advised to move away from the vicinity of nuclear reactors and should local residents eat vegetables grown in their own gardens?

Governments around the world planning
to build more reactors must clearly
review those plans

Based on an article by Ian Fairlie
New Scientist, 26th April 2010