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Inter Press Service

Nuclear Plants Raise Leukaemia Threat

Julio Godoy

BERLIN - It has been a miserable month for the Brosowskys, a German family in the small city of Marschacht.1228 04

On Dec. 8, physicians and health researchers from the University of Mainz, 425 km southwest of Berlin, said children living within a radius of five kilometres from nuclear power plants are at higher risk of contracting leukaemia.

Marschacht, the Brosowskys' hometown, lies only 1.5 km from Kruemmel, one of the oldest German nuclear power plants. The town is half an hour's drive from Hamburg, 300 km northwest of Berlin.

To the Brosowskys, the report from Mainz came as no surprise. The region has long been called a "leukaemia cluster". Since 1990, 18 cases of leukaemia have been reported among children in the vicinity of Kruemmel - three times the national average.

The authors of the study, looking at data collected between 1980 and 2003, listed 77 cases of children suffering from cancer, including 37 cases of leukaemia, in regions around nuclear power plants. The national average for similarly sized groups is 48 cancer cases, and 17 of leukaemia. That indicates twice as many cases of leukaemia among children living near nuclear power plants.

"Our study shows that the risk for children under five years of contracting leukaemia grows with proximity of their homes to nuclear power plants," Maria Blettner, director of the research group at the University of Mainz told IPS.

"We all hope that our children will get away with it," says Sabine Brosowsky, mother of three. "But there is always anxiety at home."

She and her family cannot leave Marschacht. "We were living here long before the nuclear power plant was installed," Brosowsky told IPS. "We want to still be living here well after the plant has been dismantled."

But December brought bad news. On Dec. 16, Rambo, the family cat, had to be put to sleep. The cat had numerous tumours suspected to be cancerous.

The Mainz findings are consistent with others in France and Britain. In France, one such study in 1997, and another in 2001, showed a higher incidence of leukaemia among children living near nuclear power plants.

Jean Francois Viel, professor in public health at the France Comte university 300 km east of Paris, had found in 1997 that children frequenting the beaches at Cotentin on the Atlantic Coast, near the nuclear power plant of La Hague, or living within a radius of 35 km from the plant, suffered leukaemia well above the national average.

The 2001 study, by Alfred Spira, researcher at the National Institute of Health and Medical Research, confirmed Viel's results. Spira, who had first rejected the results of Viel's study, found a disproportionately high number of cases of leukaemia among people below 25 living within 35 km of La Hague.

When the sample was reduced to children between five and nine years of age living within 10 km of the nuclear facility, the cases of leukaemia were 6.38 times the national average.

In Britain, a 2002 study confirmed an older one in 1990 that the incidence of leukaemia among children of workers at the Sellafield nuclear power plant 400 km north of London was twice the national average.

As with Viel's study, health and nuclear authorities had dismissed the results of the older study.

But the June 2002 investigation by Heather Dickinson and Louise Parker from the Children's Cancer Research Unit at the university of Newcastle confirmed the results. Using data from 1957 to 1991, the researchers found that children of workers at Sellafield were more likely to suffer leukaemia and non-Hodgkin lymphoma (NHL) -- a group of cancers affecting the white blood cells -- than the national average.

In their study, Dickinson and Parker claim that the Sellafield workers' children born in Seascale (the village near the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant) ran on average 15 times higher risk of developing leukaemia and NHL, and that the Sellafield workers' children outside Seascale ran twice the risk.

As with the studies in France and in Britain, the Mainz study has been dismissed by some as a statistical game. Minister for the environment Sigmar Gabriel, who opposes nuclear power, said he would order a review of the study, but conservative politicians criticised it as irresponsible and hysterical.

In a debate in the German parliament, the Bundestag, Dec. 16, Christian Democratic Union (CDU) representative Georg Nuesslein said "the study only shows that there is need for more research." The CDU rules Germany in coalition with the Social Democratic Party (SPD).

"You do not eliminate automobiles because every year 130 children are killed in traffic accidents," said CDU representative Jens Koeppen during the debate. Members of the opposition right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (FDP) argued similarly against the study.

Under a decision taken by the former SPD-led government in 2000, Germany should phase out nuclear power by 2020. But now the FDP and the CDU want to extend the life of nuclear power beyond that year.

Some statisticians have strongly criticised the study. "It is as with the Texan sharpshooter fallacy," statistician Hans-Peter Beck-Bornholdt was quoted as saying in the conservative weekly Die Zeit. "If you shoot at random at a barn, and draw a bulls-eye around the bullet holes afterwards, you have proof of a very high probability of hitting success."

But the federal agency for irradiation protection has called the study a key argument against nuclear power. "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," Wolfram Koenig, director of the agency, said at a press conference.

Eberhard Greiser, member of the experts group tasked with review of the study, has said "the correlation is evident and very plausible."

© 2007 Inter Press Service

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