Proximity to nuclear power plants can trigger childhood leukaemia, new report warns

Publish date: December 23, 2007

Written by: Andrey Ozharovsky

Translated by: Maria Kaminskaya

MOSCOW - Incidence of childhood leukaemia more than doubles in populations residing in the vicinity of nuclear power plants (NPPs), recent German research shows - but while German authorities show no lack of awareness of this, the warning may pass unnoticed by their Russian counterparts.

The conclusions of the German studies are especially pressing for Russia, where it is planned to double the amount of nuclear energy output by 2030, putting hundreds of thousand of Russian children at risk of leukaemia.

With the monopolisation of the Russian nuclear industry into what the Kremlin hopes to be a money-spinning state corporation, the erosion of environmental impact study laws and the curious lack of studies in Russia linking cancer to nuclear power and radiation, hope is low among Russian environmentalist that the German studies will penetrate the upper echelons of state-corporate power.

The new German study commissioned by the German federal authority for radiation safety, the Bundesamt fur Strahlenschutz, warns that incidence of leukaemia among children under five years old is all the more frequent the closer their proximity is to any of the 16 nuclear power plants in operation in Germany.

Even though Germany has enforced a decision to phase out its nuclear energy industry, some of the country’s nuclear power plants have been allowed to remain online until they have exhausted their design-based operational terms. However, new evidence has emerged that suggests that even those NPPs that show consistently smooth operation records can pose a serious threat to the population residing nearby.

An analysis of statistical data has demonstrated that the risk of leukaemia becomes all the more pronounced for children under five – an age where sensitivity to radiation impact is expected to be higher than later in life – the closer a running nuclear power plant is to their homes. The analysis was performed on the basis of statistical data gathered on 1,592 children with cancer and 4,375 healthy children, who in the period of between 1980 and 2003, lived in 41 German districts in close proximity to the 16 NPPs the country operates.

This study was the first to take into account the precise distance between the place of residence and a running reactor. For instance, statistics from one of the regions surrounding a nuclear power plant shows 77 cases of childhood cancer occurred there, of which 37 are accounted for by leukaemia. If these children lived further away from the NPP, says the study, the rate of cancer occurrence among them, as calculated according to statistical projections, would have been cut to 48, of which only 17 would have been leukaemia cases – or roughly twice as few as in the studied data.

A conclusion is thus reached in the study that the nuclear power plant in that region bears the immediate culpability for 29 cancer cases, including 20 leukaemia cases among children under five who lived in its vicinity. Furthermore, research proves that cancer incidence increases noticeably within a distance of up to 50 kilometres to an operating nuclear power plant.

Germany’s Federal Minister for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety Sigmar Gabriel has issued a statement saying his agency will closely examine the results of the study and make a “decision regarding further actions.”

One can expect that the direct evidence gathered in the study on how harmful even the accident-free operation of NPPs in Germany can be to the health of the country’s population will serve as an additional argument strengthening the case for phasing out all German nuclear power plants, and even spurring the implementation of that decision.

The study relies on a research undertaken in 2003 by the Mainz-based Institute of Medical Statistics, Epidemiology and Informatics (IMBEI) as the Clinical Centre of Mainz University, a research and teaching institution focused on statistical methodology in clinical and epidemiological research. It provides statistical consulting in the field and also works as a partner in many clinical trials and other scientific studies.

The institute maintains two cancer registries, one of which is the German Childhood Cancer Registry. Using the registry’s statistics as a starting point, the institute chose three districts with closest proximity to each of Germany’s 16 NPP as areas in which to take a closer look at the existing picture.

In effect, the study became an effort to verify the already established statistical tendencies that show correlations between the incidence rates of various types of cancer and the consequences of operating nuclear power plants of various designs in the affected regions.

For example, an earlier study performed in Germany in 1997 revealed that the presence of a running NPP within the distance of five kilometres or less increased cancer rates by 22 percent to 36 percent among children under 14, and by as much as 54 percent among children under five.

The increase of leukaemia incidence in children under five – by as much as 1.7 times among children living in the vicinity of a nuclear power plant – is especially disturbing. More thorough research allows for even more alarming estimations that that rate could be double that in children living further away. The same research shows that boiling-water reactors are responsible for more hazards than pressurised-water reactors.

The very contention that radiation impact leads to an increase in cancer incidence has long been proven by numerous studies. Internal radiation exposure – which happens when a source of radiation is found within the body – has been shown to be the most dangerous of all impacts.

According to data gathered by specialised clinics in the Gomel region – an area in Belarus that sustained some of the worst impact of radiation fallout following the Chernobyl disaster in 1986 – incidence of leukaemia in children and adults alike has increased by 50 percent after the notorious disaster compared to the rate that existed before the accident.

In Russia, the rates of occurrence of various types of cancer, such as blood cancer, lymphatic cancer, and kidney cancer, have also been found to be twice as high among former “liquidators” – specialists and ordinary workers who were summoned or volunteered come to Chernobyl after the accident to help contain the explosion’s disastrous consequences – as the rates shown by general national statistics. Experts believe it will not be until some 30 years have passed after the catastrophe that increases in certain cancer types may fully reveal themselves.

In their turn, German studies confirm that not only a beyond-design-basis discharge of radionuclides, but also an everyday, “sanctioned” radiation emission by a nuclear power plant operating well within emergency limits can compound to the cancer hazard posed by an NPP.

The technological processes taking place at any NPP take as a given that the surrounding atmosphere will be systematically receiving radionuclide discharges – products of nuclear fission and activation, radioactive noble gases, radioactive iodine, and tritium (heavy hydrogen).

For example, a nuclear reactor of the pressurised-water type – one of the more common reactor types employed in Russia such as a typical VVER-1000 operating in a design-basis mode and at its nominal capacity – will be responsible for as much as 20 terabecquerel worth of radioactive discharge emitted through its ventilation pipe system.

One need not delve into the isotopic composition of the “sanctioned” discharges to prove the urgent relevance of the most recent German studies, which have consistently the perilous and undisputable effect that even small radiation doses can have on human health. In light of the newest data that highlights the known hazard of even smoothly operating nuclear power plants one is bound to question the moral underpinnings of the very practice that entitles NPPs to daily emit their dangerous radioactive discharges into the surrounding atmosphere.

One would also expect to find an increased rate of cancer cases among children living near each of the 10 nuclear power plants in operation in Russia. The highest risk would be associated with NPPs located within less than five kilometres from the nearby population, such as in the town of Udoml, which is near the Kalinin NPP, to Moscow’s north. A significantly higher cancer incidence rate could also be predicted in the vicinity of nuclear power plants operating pressurised-tube reactors, or RBMKs, such as the Leningrad and Kursk NPPs, near St. Petersburg and the Southwest Russia city of Kursk, respectively.

One will, however, lament the lack of access to cancer statistics in Russia, where the powerful atomic lobby aims to either prevent such research on a independent basis, or closely guards the results it does find. Russia’s relevant authorities could not be relied upon to move any time soon to publicly sanction accumulating and analysing cancer rate statistics focusing on populations living near NPPs.

But if the German study is any indication – and Russian children are not found to be fundamentally different from their German counterparts – the tendency of a continued operation of a nuclear power plant to result in increased cancer rates, especially in children under five, would not be so difficult to predict in Russia as well.