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Childhood leukaemia: 'not linked to nuclear plants'

Fergus Walsh | 18:06 UK time, Friday, 6 May 2011

Would you be happy moving next door to a nuclear power plant and raising your children there? Or would you worry about the potential health risks? Post-Fukushima and Chernobyl it is hardly surprising that many would prefer not to take any chances.

But a report from an independent scientific committee has concluded that there is no evidence of increased cancer risks for those living close to the 13 nuclear power plants in Britain. The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) analysed medical records concerning leukaemia in children under five.

The committee chairman Professor Alex Elliott said young children were the most vulnerable to this form of cancer: "If the incidence of in this age group is negligible then we can, with fair confidence, say that there is no problem with other age groups."

Childhood leukaemia is rare, but the committee looked at all cases within 5, 10 and 25 km of nuclear power plants and compared those with incidence elsewhere. They found that the risk was "extremely small, if not zero" for those living in close proximity to nuclear plants.

They also analysed incidence around seven sites earmarked for nuclear power plants which were never actually built. Around these areas they did find an above average incidence of leukaemia. The scientists said this anomaly showed that where clusters of cases are found, care is needed in attributing the root cause.

Previous studies have shown that the incidence of childhood leukaemia differ more than would be expected from chance - in other words, there must be a cause for clusters of cases. But the oncologists, epidemiologists and nuclear experts on COMARE do not think radiation from nuclear plants is responsible.

Today's report will be a fillip for supporters of nuclear power in the wake of terrible headlines following the Fukushima nuclear crisis. Last year the government identified eight sites in England and Wales as suitable for future nuclear power stations.

The committee pointed out that their research deals with nuclear power plants operating normally, so no comparisons can be made with either Chernobyl or Fukushima.

COMARE was set up in 1985 following a recommendation of the report chaired by Sir Douglas Black. This concluded that there was a raised incidence of leukaemia in young people living near the nuclear plant at Sellafield. Subsequent reviews by COMARE have concluded that radiation doses arising from nuclear installations are not nearly high enough to cause increases in childhood leukaemia.

The committee's current report was restricted to nuclear power plants so did not look at Sellafield, which is a reprocessing plant, nor did it include Dounreay, a former nuclear research facility. Its next report will analyse these plants and the clusters of leukaemia cases associated with both.

COMARE has also recommended the government looks at other possible factors involved in childhood leukaemia. In an earlier report it found cases of leukaemia were more likely among wealthier families in the least overcrowded conditions. Other studies have suggested that babies who have regular contact with other children are less likely to develop leukaemia, perhaps because their immune system is primed by early contact with infections.

The new report says: "There is growing epidemiological evidence that childhood leukaemia is linked to infections...either a rare response to a common infection...or a rare response to general exposure to infectious agents...however the biological mechanism underlying these hypotheses remain the subject of considerable scientific debate."

Three years ago a German study DID find a statistically significant increased risk of leukaemia among young children living near nuclear plants. But the COMARE report said the German data did not take into account variables such as the socio-economic status of the families or the conditions they lived in, which could both be important factors.


  • Comment number 1.

    I would have no fear of raising a family next to a nuclear plant (well, perhaps road-traffic, so I'd really push the Highway Code). Chernobyl was a reactor that could almost have been designed to go wrong, it was more a miracle it lasted as long as it did. That design was only ever used in the former USSR, and they've all been decommissioned. With Fukushima, it survived the fifth largest earthquake ever, it survived several waves of tsunami, and succumbed only when its back up diesel generators ran out of fuel. I assure you if an earthquake strong enough to knock out a nuclear reactor hit the UK then radioactive fallout would not even be in the top ten of our problems; the loss of life would already be in the tens of millions and every other building in the land would be flattened.

    Nuclear power, I'll have that in my backyard just fine thank you. Just put a pelican crossing on the road to deal with the traffic.

  • Comment number 2.

    #1 R

    I hope you haven't forgotten about the particle focusing effects of the high voltage transmission lines.
    Nobody wants to live next to a pylon.

  • Comment number 3.

    Do you have the number of that estate agent as the disability that the benefit brings to the work place is not only for the sick and medically deformed but also for the visually impaired and mobility dependent who all enjoy a new ramp in the office and a fresh lick of paint to brighten the place up a bit.

  • Comment number 4.

    Statistics are always a notoriously bad way of establishing a causal link. People see a statistical correlation between A and B and assume that A causes B, but it could be equally true that B causes A or that some unknown C causes both A and B. For example, we might find statistical evidence that people with yellow finger tips are more prone to get lung cancer. Does this mean that yellow finger tips cause cancer, or does cancer cause yellow finger tips, or maybe its because of all those cigarettes they were smoking. Statistics just show correlation, not causality. Its in the interpretation of them that all the mistakes get made.

  • Comment number 5.

    "Would you be happy moving next door to a nuclear power plant"? Yes I have lived very close to the boundary fence of one and was very happy there. The local inhabitants were very happy to live there too with their children. I was amazed tho' that several miles away people were very happy to live in new expensive houses that had been directly built under a 400kV power line.

    I have given many talks about the beneficial effects of low level radiation and radiation hormesis. Because of the false "linear no threshhold model" of the effects of radiation, radiation limits are far too severe and vast amounts of money are wasted on keeping man's exposure to radiation to an unecessarily low a level.

    It's all the result of the false effect of the nuclear bomb. The fall-out and radiation caused by nuclear bombs scared people. Therefore they had an unreasonable fear of radiation. Therefore tight radiation limits were set by the authorities to allay people's fears. Therefore people believed "radiation must be very dangerous because of the tight restrictions that are necessary". It's a circular, catch 22 argument, from which it is difficult to escape.

  • Comment number 6.

    As someone who is used to managing risk and consequence I don't quite understand the leap from "extremely small, if not zero" risk assessment in the report, to the "no risk" that seems to be being reported. If the report had concluded there was no risk, I'm guessing it would have said that. It did say "there was no evidence of ...." and that is again quite different from saying that "there isn't". For many years there was no evidence that smoking caused cancer.

    I'm not suggesting that the report might be incorrect, nor that the right conclusions aren't being drawn, I'm just saying that for risks with the magnitude of the nuclear industry we do need to understand, and talk about, the actual words, not the perceived words, and there is a particular responsibility on journalists to do so.

    We should also not lose sight that this is just one of the risks of living near a nuclear site, and even if this were a zero risk it doesn't reduce all the other risks to zero. It is easy to write off the Chernobyl design as old and poorly designed (but nobody seemed to care until it blew) and easy to write off Fukushima as a Tsunami event, but with "low risk, high consequence events" what matters is the risks we do have, not the ones we don't have, and for a start we have a much bigger terrorist threat in the UK.

    I would add that I am not against nuclear power, but I have noticed that there are two very dogmatic camps on this issue and a clear absense of open minds. Our decisions have to be based on scientific evidence and top quality risk management decisions, not vested interest (one of which is that societally it's easier to build nuclear stations than to change our lifestyles to conserve energy).

    Finally, if it couldn't happen here, how come we came so close at Calder Hall? And this of course might change the findings of this report when they extend the study to Sellafield and Dounreay.

  • Comment number 7.

    I would dearly love to install a Toshiba 4S micro nuclear reactor under my house.

  • Comment number 8.

    I live in dorset and we used to have winfrith Nuclear Research Power station
    personally Im all for them and any modern technology to drive the UK through the 21st century.

    We already have 50 ish nuclear powerstations near us any way ie French ones and about 5 or so in uk.

    The greens and liberals are living in cloud cuckoo land IMHO. Particular the Greens who think we can rely on wave/wind /sun power alone yet and at the same time their policy on immigration is .. They havent one and each new person to uk obviously uses up power. (thought that would be blatantly obvious)

    The French ones and the eventual british ones (i hope) , will be more advanced by far then the Japanses or Russian ones and of course not built on fault lines.

  • Comment number 9.

    How do u think the cornish cope with natural radon radiation thats has existed for a miillenia and no they arent mutant after that time

  • Comment number 10.

    I'd rather live next to a nuclear power plant than a coal-fired one. Seriously. Particularly if it was an older one, even if it had been retro-fitted with air-scrubbers.

  • Comment number 11.

    The greens are caught between an irrational fear of CO2 from coal power stations and an irrational fear of anything nuclear.

    They are in denial about the energy crisis facing the UK over the next 10 years.

  • Comment number 12.

    I do live near to a nuclear power station and I'd glady swap my house with that of "R". When I moved here all nuclear power stations were to be decommissioned (now unlikely to be completed for ninety years at a cost of £1 billion a year) and the government stated that nuclear is not sustainable and not cost effective.

    I am told by experts that the conculsions of this report are dubious at best. The data used actually shows an increase in leukaemia near to nuclear power stations of around 30%. They then go on to use the "virus" and "migration" causes to excuse these results, even given the fact that the KiKK study in Germany did everything to could to exclude those factors.

    Also, the report does nothing to address the concerns that many people have about the safe dose levels and the way they are calculated, especially the way that the model to do the calculations is based far to heavily on data from WW2 bombs and air burst tests and does not take sufficient account the dangers of ingestion of less powerful alpha and low energy beta emitters in the body (see WWW.LLRC.ORG). I am very disappointed in this report.

  • Comment number 13.

    It is well known that ingestion of radioisotopes cause cancer.

    Experiments have been carried out on humans, without their consent, that prove this (in the land of the free, the US amongst other places).

    This report conveniently does not include nuclear installations where there have been releases of such material that would be taken up by the local population, i.e. Dounreay and Sellafield. It only relates to power plants that have, as far as I can see, functioned correctly during their lives, and omits other necessary parts of the nuclear industry, reprocessing and decommisssioning operations. It is during these that the harmful materials may be released.

    This appears one of the more blatant attempts to manipulate data to arrive at a desired conclusion.

  • Comment number 14.

    Incidentally, I see that in parallel with giving prominence to this report, the BBC is also running items on other heart-rending childhood cancers known to be non-radiological in origin, although thankfully rare.

    No agenda here, though, naturally.

  • Comment number 15.

    This COMARE report is just another attempt to discredit UK, European and American studies which over two decades have confirmed what those of us who do live near a nuclear site have known since we first watched our friends' children dying of leukaemia in the early years of nuclear power. Somerset doctors published two studies of childhood leukaemia increases following the arrival of nuclear power at Hinkley Point in 1965. Many other later studies, including the German KIKK study, confirm the first ones published in 1988. If you live near a nuclear site, you do not need epidemiologists to tell you that cancers are excessive; you either get cancer yourself or watch friends and relatives dying prematurely. The published studies are for the benefit of government and taxpayer-funded regulatory bodies. Their enforcement of mandatory regulations has failed on several occasions, the most recent at Hinkley Point is the refusal of the Nuclear Decommissioning Agency to enforce the mandatory 80-year sealing of the two decommissioning Magnox reactors. Emergency vents were installed into the roofs of these reactors in 2006 since when downwind coastal communities have experienced an epidemic of cardiovascular premature deaths. Where are the prosecutions for Corporate Manslaughter? As invisible as they were following the unauthorised release of radiation in 1994 when we had another epidemic of premature deaths. What are COMARE for? Their experts suggest that childhood leukaemia might be caused by mosquito bites!!! For heaven's sake; where are mosquitos as rare as hen's teeth? Along the coastal regions where all the nuclear reactors are sited. One of COMARE's experts previously suggested that the excess of skin cancers downwind of Hinkley Point was probably due to blondes lying on the beaches. In fact the known cause of skin cancer is exposure to plutonium gases which have been discharged from Hinkley Point since 2006. Lots more skin cancers now, and they don't only appear after sunbathing on the beach (which, incidentally no one living near Hinkley is daft enough to try) they appear spontaneously throughout the winter, following discharges of poisonous gases from the nuclear reactors. If that's the best the UK's experts can come up with, I suggest the government listens to us amateurs. They could even authorise widespread DNA testing of people living near nuclear sites, or are they afraid what the evidence of such tests would show?

  • Comment number 16.

    Can't you tell an Anti-Nuke from a mile off, by the content of their comments, .

    They're always full of:


    Why can't they stick to the facts?

  • Comment number 17.

    The real issue with nuclear reactors is not how safe they are when running within design parameters . But the issues surrounding failure of containment when not running within design parameters or due to failed components .

  • Comment number 18.

    #16 cwm66

    "Why can't they stick to the facts?"

    Unfortunately facts change.

  • Comment number 19.

    Looking back over the topics, I see that the release of radiation at Fukushima is referred to as a "leak" by the BBC.

    Just imagine if such language had been used in WW2: "We proudly report that our bombers, using Mr. Barnes-Wallace's brilliant invention, have caused a leak in several of the the dams of the Fuhrer's Ruhr..."

  • Comment number 20.

    So many at the BBC and Guardian will be upset by this news :)

  • Comment number 21.

    20. At 09:16am 9th May 2011, DrNick999 wrote:

    "So many at the BBC and Guardian will be upset by this news :)"


    What news is this, then?

    That provided there is no release of radiation or radioactive materials from a nuclear plant there is little health risk? Because that's all this report says in effect. It does *not include* installations where this has happened.

  • Comment number 22.


    "Unfortunately facts change."

    Nobody wants to live next to a pylon, eh?

    Is that a fact?

  • Comment number 23.

    I am neither pro-nuclear nor anti-nuclear. I can see the enormous advantages of nuclear power, but I also appreciate the fears of people, which can't simply be written off as hysterical, given that we now have several examples of things going badly wrong at a nuclear facility, for various reasons and in various places.

    I personally would have no qualms whatsoever about living next to a functioning, modern, well run nuclear power plant. However I would not like to live close to the site of a reactor in the process of decommissioning. The problem is that every reactor eventually becomes a decommissioning site.

    What surprises me, as a trained physicist, is the total lack of any mention of Thorium reactors in debates about these issues. This technology was being researched while I was at University in the early 70's, with very positive results. Thorium is a much friendlier substance than enriched uranium or plutonium, is much more abundant than uranium, and would make the whole decommissioning process cheaper and cleaner by several orders of magnitude, in my opinion.

    Currently, only India appears to have an active Thorium nuclear programme. Why not any other country? Maybe because you can't make bombs out of Thorium?

    This is the sort of issue the Greens and Friends of the Earth should run with, rather than just saying "no to nuclear" all the time.

  • Comment number 24.

    The hysteria mob is out again trying to spread panic about “radiation” and continuing to ignore any science or facts.

    Message 15. At 13:57pm 8th May 2011, Jo_M_Brown wrote:

    “This COMARE report is just another attempt to discredit UK, European and American studies which over two decades have confirmed what those of us who do live near a nuclear site have known since we first watched our friends' children dying of leukaemia in the early years of nuclear power.”

    So obviously there are wastelands and rows of empty houses near our nuclear power stations then?

    The local hospitals are full of children dying from leukaemia then?

    Unfortunately for the hysteria junkies people still live near nuclear power stations by choice, maybe these people just don’t mind their friends and children dying from cancer?

    Personally I would like to live near to Sizewell, but it’s a very expensive area to buy a house, so how does that figure in the absurd statement that
    “If you live near a nuclear site, you do not need epidemiologists to tell you that cancers are excessive; you either get cancer yourself or watch friends and relatives dying prematurely.”

    The truth is that nuclear energy is safe and people living near it know this to be true.
    Living near a coal fuelled power station exposes people to a much higher level of radioactive particles, and living in idyllic Cornwall or Wales massively increases your exposure to radiation far higher than even people who work inside a nuclear power station.

  • Comment number 25.

    I would like to see the statistics because other studies have shown a significant link between living in the vicinity of a nuclear power station and childhood leukemia.

  • Comment number 26.

    #22 cwm66

    I suppose somebody might get a buzz out of living next to a pylon.

  • Comment number 27.

    25. At 13:17pm 9th May 2011, tonnaumor wrote:
    I would like to see the statistics because other studies have shown a significant link between living in the vicinity of a nuclear power station and childhood leukemia.

    You are making reference to the KiKK study which correlated childhood leukaemia incidence with proximity to nuclear power stations in Germany?

    Some observations on this study if I may.

    1. There was a correlation
    2. The childhood leukaemia rate did not increase for multiple nuclear power stations at the same site (2 reactors = twice the incidence? but this was not the case)
    3. The data sets used were spatially incomplete (i.e. the population wasn't studied evenly in 360 degrees around the plants)
    4. The data sets are temporally incomplete (i.e. there was 'cherry picking' of ~10 years worth of data when childhood leukaemia rates were at their highest)
    5. The study concludes that there is a correlation between childhood leukaemia incidence and proximity to nuclear plants *but* that a cause cannot be attributed and that it is unlikely to be associated with discharges (notably because of point 2 above).

    Hope that provides some clarification


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