A joint scientific publication in the “International Journal of Cancer” dated January 4, 2012 by epidemiologists from Inserm (the French health research institute) and IRSN, points to an excess of risk of childhood leukaemia around French nuclear power plants. IRSN points below its position on this issue.
This new study identifies an excess of childhood leukaemia within 5 km around the French nuclear power plants over the period 2002-2007. This result must however be considered with caution for several reasons: it is based on a very small number of cases (14 observed against 7.4 expected according to the national rates), for an incidence of this disease which is relatively stable across the country, about 500 cases per year for the whole of France. A previous study conducted as part of the same Inserm / IRSN scientific collaboration for the period 1990/2001 did however not show such an excess; in addition, looking for a statistical link between the incidence and population exposure to actual radioactive releases into the atmosphere around nuclear power plants, according to the prevailing winds, does also not show such an excess. This is not surprising, because this exposure is about 1000 times lower than the one resulting from natural radioactivity. For IRSN, no direct operational consequences are to be drawn from this study in terms of risk management for the population in the vicinity of nuclear sites.
However, IRSN considers that this statistical signal, joining others of a similar nature established in the past, and in other countries, should not be ignored, and justifies continuing scientific research in two main directions:
- Firstly, it is of great importance that the epidemiological studies are carried out under good conditions and on an international scale, to increase their statistical power and therefore the representativeness of the results. In this perspective, an international workshop will be organised mid-2012 jointly by IRSN and BfS (Federal Office of Germany for Radiation Protection), to define a common methodological basis for future studies of exposure risk near nuclear power plants or other types of sites to be investigated, and more generally to coordinate research on explanatory factors in childhood leukaemia, which remain largely unknown today. This Franco-German initiative joined one of the conclusions of the Working Group "Nuclear installations and childhood leukaemia," set up by ASN, the French nuclear safety authority and conducted by Professor Sommelet.
- Moreover, the research effort on health effects of low doses of ionizing radiation must be amplified, as today too much is still unknown in this field, and yet the issue is very sensitive to the public. If we consider that the international system of radiation protection, such as implemented in France, is powerful enough to generate a continuous optimization process to minimize exposure to ionizing radiation, the scientific basis of this system for very low exposures remains incomplete, particularly in terms of understanding biological phenomena at stake. This is an issue of international dimension, which requires the commitment of significant resources, and collaborative research approaches, innovative and multidisciplinary. This is the reason why the research platform MELODI was recently established at the European level (Multidisciplinary European Low Dose Initiative). This platform, grouping together the main European organizations with research capabilities in this area, is tasked with developing and maintaining a Strategic European Research Programme on the effects of low doses of ionizing radiation to steer, coordinate and integrate the efforts of various key players in Europe, to advise the EU institutions in radiation protection, and to organise a dialogue with other institutions in charge of these issues, notably in the United States and in Japan. IRSN, with its research laboratories (dosimetry, radiobiology, epidemiology) which are already greatly involved, is one of the major key players from MELODI and intends to increase its efforts in this area over the next few years.
Download the analytical note by IRSN of this scientific publication (pdf file).