Some cancer with your nuke energy?

Is it healthy to live near a nuclear power plant (NPP)? Is there an increased risk of contracting cancer, particularly for babies and young children in their formative years?

These are important, controversial and highly contested questions which have been the subject of intense public and scientific debate in Europe and North America for years.

Yet in South Africa, where Eskom and the government are intent on constructing several new NPPs in the next decade or two, they hardly ever get a mention. In the ongoing environmental impact assessment process for Eskom's proposed Nuclear1 project, for instance, considerations of the impact on human health have been specifically excluded.

If you're a regular reader of this column you’ll know that I don’t like nuclear power, but I’ve always considered health concerns to be among the least convincing arguments in the case against nukes. We are told, after all, that barring an accident, radioactive emissions from a NPP are so minimal – practically indistinguishable from the natural background - as to be inconsequential. Well, I’ve changed my mind.

Cancer clusters

In the late 1980s and early 1990s several studies reported a statistically raised incidence of childhood leukaemia, a cancer of the bone marrow or blood, within a ten mile radius of some English and Welsh atomic facilities.

Similar cancer clusters were also identified around some nuclear sites in the USA and France, but a number of contradictory studies from France, Israel, Great Britain, Finland, the USA, Spain and elsewhere could find no evidence for a correlation between the risk of contracting cancer and one’s proximity to a NPP.

The data is inconclusive, the experts said. Besides, there are many possible causes for cancer clusters as well as many cancer clusters which are located far from any NPPs.

Then, in the early 1990s a German medical doctor raised concern over the unusually large number of small children with leukaemia he was treating in his rural practice south east of Hamburg. All of the patients in question lived near the Krümmel NPP.

Several subsequent investigations confirmed his observations and established the existence of a cancer cluster around Krümmel.

In response to the considerable public outrage that followed, the German government commissioned what was designed to be a comprehensive and definitive scientific study to settle the dispute once and for all.

Known by its German acronym, the KiKK study investigated the prevalence of cancer among children below the age of 5 living near 16 of the country’s 20 commercial NPPs from 1980 to 2003. It goes without saying that similar studies have not been conducted in SA, nor are they on the cards.

Scary findings

The German results were releases in 2007 and 2008 and can be summarised as follows:

-Children living within 5km of an NPP are statistically more than twice as likely to develop leukaemia as others residing at a distance of more than 70km.

- The cancer risk increases with decreasing distance of a child’s home from a NPP.

- The data are not skewed by any “rogue” reactors and the results are verified even if data from any individual NPP are excluded from the analysis. The main findings have also been confirmed by subsequent independent evaluations.

So cancer clusters have been found around every German NPP investigated and it’s now officially accepted there that babies and small children – the sector of the population most vulnerable to ionising radiation – develop cancer and particularly leukaemia more frequently if they live near an NPP.

But here is the kicker.

Just because a pattern has been shown to exist doesn’t mean that NPPs are to blame. Since the results are “unexpected under current radiation-epidemiological knowledge” and NPPs supposedly emit too little radioactivity by a factor of 1 000 to 10 000 to cause cancer, “there is currently no plausible explanation for the observed effect”. Occam’s razor be damned!

Personally I don’t really care if small kids living near NPPs develop cancer because of leaking radioactivity or because of toxic fairy dust from evil pixies that just happen to like living in these places. I do have a solution to the conundrum though: let’s just stop building them.

- Andreas manages Lobby Books, the independent book shop at Idasa’s Cape Town Democracy Centre.

Send your comments to Andreas

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
In times of uncertainty you need journalism you can trust. For 14 free days, you can have access to a world of in-depth analyses, investigative journalism, top opinions and a range of features. Journalism strengthens democracy. Invest in the future today. Thereafter you will be billed R75 per month. You can cancel anytime and if you cancel within 14 days you won't be billed. 
Subscribe to News24
Rand - Dollar
Rand - Pound
Rand - Euro
Rand - Aus dollar
Rand - Yen
Brent Crude
Top 40
All Share
Resource 10
Industrial 25
Financial 15
All JSE data delayed by at least 15 minutes Iress logo
Editorial feedback and complaints

Contact the public editor with feedback for our journalists, complaints, queries or suggestions about articles on News24.