Last updated on March 1, 2013
A German report (summary) on cancer incidence seems to indicate that there is a higher frequency of cancer cases, mainly leukaemia in children, around nuclear power plants in Germany. The report was written at the Federal Office for Radiation Protection in Germany and based on two articles [1, 2].
The report was quickly embraced by the Swedish movement against nuclear power (SNF, Schlaug) and has also created a few headlines in Swedish newspapers (AB, HN). These newspaper articles claim that people living in the vicinity of Swedish nuclear power plants are worried by this report. Lars Barregård at the Centre for Medical Enviromental Sciences wants to investigate the incidence of leukaemia around Ringhals nuclear power plant. However, he says to HN: “…the radiation levels are very low and should not be able cause an increase in cancer frequency, though a study can be good to lessen the worries“. (translated from Swedish)
The Swedish Radiation Safety Authority (SSM) however does not consider it important to perform another study in Sweden as such studies have already been conducted with consistent negative results. A study in 1995 found no increase in numbers of cases of leukaemia. Also the number of cases of child leukaemia has been more or less constant at around 60 cases per year over the past 30 years, a period of time which includes the gradual phase-in of nuclear power in Sweden. SSM states that further epidemiological studies trying to blame cancer on nuclear power are not needed. Instead, there is a need of a larger knowledge base and more studies that tries to find the underlying reason for child leukaemia in general .
Still this leaves us with the German report. Does it give us due cause to worry? Not really, because in the conclusion of the report, the authors state:
…the present status of radiobiologic and epidemiologic knowledge does not allow the conclusion that the ionising radiation emitted by German [nuclear power plants] during normal operation is the cause.
What this means is that in order for nuclear plants to have caused these cancers, there must be some completely unknown effect in play; some kind of cause that science does not know anything about yet.
They further note that…
This study can not conclusively clarify whether confounders, selection or randomness play a role in the distance trend observed.
…these estimates are rather inconclusive because they are based on a very small number of cases
This means that they have not been able to rule out that other factors may explain the results, factors such as: carcirogens unrelated to the nuclear plants, errors in the study, or pure chance due to the amount of data being much to small.
Reading further we find that they have not measured the level of radioactivity around the plants or even include any kind of estimate of this:
This study is not able to state which biological risk factors could explain this relationship. Exposure to ionising radiation was neither measured nor modelled
One amusing interpretation of this would be that closeness itself, and not radiation, is a cancer causing agent. That is to say being 100 meters from a non-leaking plant would be more dangerous than being 200 meters from a wrecked one, because distance is what they have looked at, not radiation.
This is perhaps not odd concidering that radiation is not significantly or even measurably higher around these plants. The report concludes (again) that radiation cannot be a factor in this study on account of the additional exposure from nuclear powerplants being staggeringly small.
Annual exposure in Germany to the natural radiation background is approximately 1.4 mSv and the annual average exposure through medical examinations is approximately 1.8 mSv. Compared to these values, the exposure to ionising radiation in the vicinity of German NPPs is lower by a factor of 1,000 to 100,000. In the light of these facts, and based on the present status of scientific knowledge, the result of our study cannot be explained radiobiologically.
A far more serious thing to be remarked is that the second article notes that the study goes against findings of other studies made previously :
….this observation is not consistent with most international studies, unexpected given the observed levels of radiation, and remains unexplained. We cannot exclude the possibility that this effect is the result of uncontrolled confounding or pure chance.
Looking at French studies [4,5], similar to the German one, we see that they indeed could not find any significant relation between cancer incidence and absorbed dose or closeness to a nuclear power plant.
Further reading reveals that they have not been able to process data considering children moving around prior to the cancer notice, nor the importance of lifestyle or whether the time the children spend in their homes is of relevance.
All of this summed up leaves us with a report that in effect states: “We think there might be slightly more cases of child cancer around some nuclear power plants, but we don’t really know why. And in order for the nuclear plants to be the actual cause, instead of something else, 60 years of radiobiological science must have completely missed something here”.
This notwithstanding the Swedish self-proclaimed enviromental movement beats the big drum and claims that it would be “irresponsable to concider constructing new nuclear power plants before it is clear whether children that live around existing plants suffer from conditions like leukaemia more often than the general public” (translated from ).
At Nuclear Power Yes Please we find this kind of alarmism to be just as irresponsible. We do not oppose performing epidemiological studies on nuclear power plants because science, openness of information and continuous review is one of the pillars that support our confidence in nuclear power. If anything we would welcome an exhaustive, well conducted study that settles the matter once and for all so we can either go happily about our lives, or get to work on a solution should one be needed.
But to spread fear of nuclear power among the general public without a solid scientific reason is reprehensible, especially with a report that even by its own words state that the results are vague, inconclusive and goes against most previously made scientific studies.
In light of the movement bringing this up just as there are huge political shifts in the view on Swedish nuclear power, possibly lifting the three decade old ban on building new nuclear power plants, we at Nuclear Power Yes Please are left to wonder what the real cause of the alarmism is. Why is the movement against nuclear power bringing this up now? Is it a genuine worry about public health, or is it a desperate attempt by the movement to try to justify their anti-nuclear stance? If it is the latter, we cannot express enough our outrage at such reckless abuse of science in order to try to make a political point.
1: Peter Kaatsch, Claudia Spix, Renate Schulze-Rath, Sven Schmiedel and Maria Blettner. Leukaemia in young children living in the vicinity of German nuclear power plants.
2: Case–control study on childhood cancer in the vicinity of nuclear power plants in Germany 1980–2003. Claudia Spix, Sven Schmiedel, Peter Kaatsch, Renate Schulze-Rath and Maria Blettner.
4: M.L. White-Koning, D. He’mon and D. Laurier et al.. Incidence of childhood leukaemia in the vicinity of nuclear sites in France, 1990–1998.
5: A.-S. Evrard, D. He’mon and A. Morin et al., Childhood leukaemia incidence around French nuclear installations using geographic zoning based on gaseous discharge dose estimates.
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