Harnessing nuclear energy gives the potential for a very efficient energy source, but comes at the risk of environmental damage in the case of an accident and general radiation emission to the surrounding areas. However, a new study of UK towns near nuclear sites shows that concerns about radiation exposure may be overblown, as the increased radiation from living in these towns was inconsequential in cancer development.
The ability to use nuclear energy provides a very efficient energy source that can allow us to move away from environmentally harmful sources such as coal and natural gas. However, nuclear energy comes with its own risks, including risk of meltdown and radiation exposure to surrounding areas. The severity of the effects of radiation exposure has been debated and was recently re-examined.
Previous studies had been conducted in 1984 and 1988 that showed increased incidences of leukemia in young people and children in cities near nuclear sites. A new study was done that analysed incidence of leukemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other cancers around the same sites for people 0-14 years of age and 15-25 years of age. This new study also took into account radiation levels using more accurate models than those from previous studies.
The study was conducted by The Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) and a news report was published in the BMJ. It found that the raised incidence of leukemia and non-Hodgkins lymphoma found from 1963 to 1990 did not continue from 1991 to 2006, with only one new case of cancer in children or young adults between both sites. Radiation exposure analysis showed that radiation levels were too low to cause the amount of cancers experienced from 1963 to 1990, indicating an external factor causing their incidence. Another study done examining cancer incidence following a fire releasing radioactive iodine showed no conclusive evidence of an increase in thyroid cancer as a result of the exposure, supporting the claim of an external factor.
Researchers analysed changes to the population that may have caused the increase in cancer incidence and determined that an influx of people from other neighborhoods may be to blame. Infectious agents from this outside population may have caused the spike in cancer incidence found from 1963 to 1990.
While these results are promising for the safety of nuclear energy, researchers recommend further investigation of these populations as related to cancer before more concrete claims are made. A concern of COMARE is the increased agency of the public to make personal data unavailable, limiting the data research groups have access to. While personal privacy is benefited by these policies, limiting large-scale research of populations may have dire effects on researchers’ ability to uncover health and safety concerns.
Written By: Wesley Tin, BMSc