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Nuclear cancer risk 'doubled'

By Julian Rush

Updated on 10 January 2008

Channel 4 News online exclusive: Leukaemia risk "doubled" for children who live near nuclear power stations - new German research.

Just as Britain decides to build new nuclear power stations, new research, commissioned by the German government, reveals that children under five who live within 5 km of a nuclear power plant, have twice the risk of suffering from the blood cancer leukaemia.


'The finding cannot be dismissed'
Professor Anthony Thomas, Dept of Public Health Sciences, University of Toronto

In Germany it has re-opened the hugely controversial issue of the health risks of nuclear power - which Germany is phasing out.

In Britain, discussion of the health risks has largely been absent from the debate over new nuclear power stations, though it raged post-Chernobyl and in the late 1980s and early 1990s when cancer clusters were found around the village of Seascale in Cumbria, close to the Sellafield nuclear plant, and around the nuclear site at Dounreay in Scotland.

"What is very important about this study is its depth and rigour", says Dr Paul Dorfman of Warwick University who was co-secretary of CERRIE, the independent committee established by the British government in 2001 to examine the risks of internal radiation.

Scientists from the University of Mainz, who are responsible for the German Register of Child Cancers, were asked by the German Federal Office for Radiation Protection (BfS) to carry out the work after earlier, inconclusive research had indicated there might be a higher risk. It was published online last month by two well-respected scientific journals: the International Journal of Cancer and the European Journal of Cancer.


'We must take the correlation between distance of residence and high risk of leukaemia very seriously'
Wolfram Koenig, German Federal Office for Radiation Protection director

The German work was carefully conducted. To rule out local clustering effects, the scientists looked at children living around 16 nuclear plants in West Germany, slightly biasing their study areas to the east of each plant - downwind, as the prevailing winds are westerly. They carried out what's called a case-control study - comparing children with cancer with those who did not have the disease.

They looked at data over 23 years, from 1980 to 2003, which gave them a large sample, some 6300 children. And for the first time they carefully measured the distance each child lived from the plant, to the nearest 25m.

If there was no link to the plants, they calculated there should have been 17 leukaemia cases in children under five-years-old within 5 km of a nuclear power station. They found 37 - double the risk.


The German team are at pains to point out they can't say whether radiation from the nuclear plants is the cause...

"The finding cannot be dismissed", says Professor Anthony Thomas of the Department of Public Health Sciences at the University of Toronto in Canada, who reviewed the study for the International Journal of Cancer.

The German team are at pains to point out they can't say whether radiation from the nuclear plants is the cause because there is no measurement of how much radiation each child was exposed to. But Wolfram Koenig, director of the BfS, told a press conference last month "Given the particularly high risk of nuclear radiation for children, and the inadequacy of data on the emissions of nuclear power plants, we must take the correlation between distance of residence and high risk of leukaemia very seriously."

The British government's radiation advisors - the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) - have consistently said there is no link, though they admit there is a "non-random" distribution to childhood leukaemias in Britain and the known cancer clusters around nuclear sites cannot be explained. A similar cancer cluster has been found around the French nuclear site at La Hague.

Are you in favour?

We'd like to hear your views on nuclear power. Do you feel the country needs it, or should we avoid using it? Do you live near an existing station or would you move near one?

Please send your thoughts to news@channel4.com and we'll publish them here.

"This study does throw doubt on those findings", says Dorfman. "They may be right, but what happens if they're wrong?"

COMARE members I've spoken to have acknowledged the German researchers are some of the best in the field and their work is of high quality and significant, but they say they don't believe their committee needs to change its position.

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