The finding of excessive leukemias (cancers of the blood-forming cells)
among atomic workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee
(see RHWN #244) raises the specter of health damage from radiation
exposures thought to be entirely safe.
This is not the first time the specter has been raised.
In November, 1983, a British television station ran a documentary
called "Windscale: The Nuclear Laundry" about the Windscale nuclear
fuel reprocessing plant on the coast of Cumbria. The TV program
suggested an excess of leukemia afflicting children in villages near
The TV program led to an official British government investigation (the
"Black Report" of 1984), which led to more studies.
Nearly seven years later a careful analysis of the situation concluded
that, yes, there is definitely an increased occurrence of leukemias
near the Windscale plant (which has, in the meantime, been renamed the
Sellafield plant). The risk of leukemia and/or lymphoma (cancer of the
lymph nodes or spleen) among children near Sellafield is 10 times
The study's authors believe that children near Sellafield are getting
cancer as a result of their fathers' exposure to radiation at work
before the children are conceived. They believe children are inheriting
a genetic defect caused by radiation exposure of the fathers' sperm. An
alternative explanation is that the fathers become contaminated at work
and somehow carry radioactivity home (perhaps on their clothing), thus
irradiating their unborn children during pregnancy or very early in
life. In any case, the exposures to the children are small but the
effects are grave, so this bodes ill for nuclear technology and for its
In the meantime, while the Sellafield study of childhood leukemias was
going on, the British Office of Population Censuses and Surveys
conducted its own study of cancer deaths within districts near 14
nuclear facilities, including power generating stations. They found
increased myeloid (bone marrow) leukemias and brain tumors among young
people (age 24 and under) living, on average, five miles or less from
nuclear installations, including nuclear power plants.
A late 1987 study of people in five towns near the Pilgrim nuclear
power plant in Plymouth, Massachusetts revealed increased leukemias.
A 1988 study of workers at British nuclear weapons plants revealed
cancer rates twice the national average for cancers of the prostate
gland and kidneys.
A 1989 study of three U.S. government nuclear weapons plants
revealed a significant increase in cancers of the bone marrow (multiple
myelomas) among workers at the Hanford, Washington, facility.
So the revelation in 1991 of increased leukemias among workers at Oak
Ridge National Laboratory (see RHWN #244), viewed in historical
perspective, does not seem very surprising.
In fact, after reviewing the literature cited above, one begins to be
surprised by studies that show no cancer increases among people exposed
to low levels of radiation for long periods of time. For example, a
1991 study by Seymour Jablon and others in the Journal of the
American Medical Asssociation (JAMA) finds no increased cancers in
people living "near nuclear facilities." The authors say they initiated
their study of U.S. nuclear power plants specifically because of
British reports finding leukemia and lymphomas among young people
living near Sellafield.
JAMA provides an editorial to help interpret the Jablon study. The
editorial declares that, "This study, in conjunction with the
extrapolated results from highdose studies [of Japanese survivors of
atomic bombs], provides substantive evidence that the normal operation
of nuclear facilities in the United States doe not lead to any undue
risk of cancer in those residents living near such facilities." Living
near such facilities? What does that mean exactly?
In the case of the British studies, living "near" means living, on
average, within 5 miles; in one study it means living within 3 miles.
But in the Jablon study, living "near" seems to mean living, on
average, 14 miles from a plant. Thus the Jablon study has included
many people whom you would never expect to be "exposed" by living
"near" a nuclear facility because, in fact, they live so far away. Thus
any real cancer effect that might exist among people living near a U.S.
nuclear facility has been diluted by the inclusion of thousands of
people who are not affected. Jablon chose to study entire counties that
contain nuclear power plants, not the towns or--better yet--zip codes
really near nuclear facilities. In this way, Jablon is able to report
"no problem" when, in fact, his study seems incapable of revealing a
problem of the kind the British have discovered, even if one exists. In
its investigative power, Jablon's study is certainly not comparable to
the British studies that, he says, prompted his own work.
Thus do we learn that this science business is subject to manipulation
and to differing interpretations, even when everyone is playing by the
Do six individual studies (cited in footnotes 1 through 7) linking
nuclear facilities to cancer prove in a scientific sense that living
near a nuclear plant, or working with radioactive materials, increases
your risk of cancer? Perhaps not, in a scientific sense. On the other
hand, do those studies show, beyond a reasonable doubt, that you're
better off avoiding radioactive materials whenever possible? Seems to
us they do.
 Martin J. Gardner, Andrew J. Hall, Michael P. Snee, Susan Downes,
Caroline A. Powell, and John D. Terrell, "Methods and basic data of
case-control study of leukemia and lymphoma among young people near
Sellafield nuclear plant in West Cumbria," BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL Vol.
300 (February 17, 1990), pgs. 429-434.."
 Martin J. Gardner, Michael P. Snee, Andrew J. Hall, Caroline A.
Powell, Susan Downes, and John D. Terrell, "Results of case control
study of leukemia and lymphoma among young people near Sellafield
nuclear plant in West Cumbria," BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL, Vol. 300
(February 17, 1990) pgs. 423-428. See also the letters to the editor
this article provoked: "Correspondence," British Medical Journal Vol.
300 (March 10, 1990), pgs. 676-678.
 David Forman, Paula Cook-Mozaffari, Sarah Darby, Gwyneth Davey,
Irene Stratton, Richard Doll, and Malcolm Pike, "Cancer Near Nuclear
Installations," NATURE Vol. 329 (October 8, 1987), pgs. 499-505.
 Richard W. Clapp, Sidney Cobb, C.K. Chan, and Bailus Walker, Jr.,
"Leukaemia [sic] Near Massachusetts Nuclear Power Plant," THE LANCET
(December 5, 1987), pgs. 1324-1325.
 Valerie Beral, Patricia Fraser, Lucy Carpenter, Margaret Booth, Ann
Brown, and Geoffrey Rose, "Mortality of Employees of the Atomic Weapons
Establishment," BRITISH MEDICAL JOURNAL Vol. 297 (1988), pgs. 757-770.
 Ethel S. Gilbert, Shirley A. Fry, Laurie D. Wiggs, George L. Voelz,
Donna L. Cragle, and Gerald R. Petersen, "Analyses of Combined
Mortality Data on Workers at the Hanford Site, Oak Ridge National
Laboratory, and Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant," RADIATION RESEARCH
Vol. 120 (1989), pgs. 19-35.
 Steve Wing, Carl M. Shy, Joy L. Wood, Susanne Wolf, Donna L. Craig,
and E.L. Frome, "Mortality Among Workers at Oak Ridge National
Laboratory," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 265, No.
11 (March 20, 1991), pgs. 1397-1402.
 Seymour Jablon, Zdenek Hrubec, and John D. Boice, Jr., "Cancer in
Populations Living Near Nuclear Facilities," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN
MEDICAL ASSOCIATION Vol. 265 (March 20, 1991), pgs. 1403-1408.
 Geoffrey R. Howe, "Risk of Cancer Mortality in Populations Living
Near Nuclear Facilities," JOURNAL OF THE AMERICAN MEDICAL ASSOCIATION,
Vol. 265 (March 20, 1991), pgs. 1438-1439. Inexplicably, Mr. Howe says
earlier studies of radiation "generally have failed to find any
correlation between individually monitored radiation exposure and
cancer risk," citing the study by Gilbert (our footnote 6) which
revealed a clear correlation between multiple myeloma and radiation
exposure among Hanford workers.
 In fact, unlike his British counterparts whose work prompted his
own, Jablon gives us no details about the location of the plants he
studied in relation to the humans he studied. Jablon studied the
populations of U.S. counties containing nuclear power plants. The
average U.S. county covers an area of 1190 square miles. This is
equivalent to a square 34.5 miles on a side, or a circle with a radius
of 19.5 miles. If we assume a nuclear facility lies near the center of
a county, then the half of the county's area closest to the facility
will lie within a circle with a radius of 13.8 miles, and half will lie
outside that circle. Thus if we assume, on average, a uniform
distribution of people in the county, half will live 14 miles or less
from a plant, and half will live further away.
Descriptor terms: radiation; leukemia; cancer; oak ridge, tn;
windscale; black report; sellafield; childhood cancer; genetic
disorders; bone marrow; brain cancer; plymouth, ma; hanford, wa; wa;
tn; seymour jablon; health effects; nuclear power;