Thursday, October 9, 2008

Nuclear energy

Below is an article from the Peace River Record Gazette, and below that, my response to the reporter.

German doctor diagnoses ­— proposed plant deadly

Posted 1 day ago

By Curtis Haugan

The closer you live to a nuclear power plant, the more likely your children will get cancer.

That at least is what German pediatrician Dr. Ernst Iskenius is saying after the release of a 2007 study by the German government.

Iskenius, a member of the international organization Physicians Against Nuclear War, has traveled from Germany to Regina, Whitecourt and Peace River, speaking on the findings of the study and warning community members of the impending risk a nuclear plant would facilitate.

The report found that during the years of 1980 to 2003, children under the age of five, living close to a nuclear power plant were 120 per cent more likely to develop Leukemia, and 60 per cent more likely to develop other forms of cancer.

“They found there was a significant risk to get cancer,” said Iskenius.

“And the nearer you lived, the higher the risk.”

The report was funded by the German Federal Radiation Protection Agency (BfS) – the government’s main advisor on nuclear health, and was conducted by the German Register of Child Cancer – a branch of the Federal German Health Ministry.

The several doctors involved in administrating the four-year study were a mixture of those against nuclear plants, and those who were proponents according to Iskenius.

Because of that, and the fact 16 nuclear power plants – one in each of the 16 German states – were analysed, Inskenius said the world has never seen a study like this.

“It is an extraordinary study,” he said.

“The results were quite different than (the government) expected.

“They expected no evidence like they did in prior studies, but what they found was they took all 16 plants and found there was a significant risk to get cancer (in children).”

The study also observed children downwind from the plants, up to 50 kilometres, and found similar results.

Despite the findings, there is still uncertainty within Germany.

The emissions, according to BfS, that are emitted from the nuclear plants are far too weak to cause cancer, but other conceivable factors could not explain the heightening of the risk across distance.

German Environment Minister Sigmar Gabriel said he would call for additional research to explain the increased number of child cancer cases in August of 2008.

He, like much of the scientific community is perplexed by the findings, as the radiation levels are regulated rigorously.

“The population’s radiation exposure due to the operation of a nuclear power plants in Germany would have to be at least 1,000 times higher to be able to explain the observed increase in cancer,” he said.

Dr. Iskenius said a common argument is perhaps one or two plants are the ones making the problems.

However, the way the study was conducted – a closed control study where, by process of elimination, all factors are isolated from on another – in all 16 plants individually, the same results were found.

“We found the very same results in all of them,” he said.

“And this is amazing.

“There must be something in nuclear power plants coming out of them, not in one or two or three, but all of them that is causing this.”

Iskenius spoke to Peace Riverites Thursday Oct. 2, hoping to inform members of our community to lobby government to reconsider allowing a proposed nuclear reactor be built near Lac Cardinal, north of Peace River.

“If this nuclear plant is too dangerous and there is a risk for all children then we either accept these things as very dangerous or we higher the standards,” he said.

“On the international level we are fighting to shut down all of these installations because the risk is too great.”

Re: German doctor diagnoses-proposed plant deadly

I'm not yet sure how I feel about nuclear power coming to Peace River. When dealing with a contentious issue, emotion is sure to be involved, so having straight facts to consider is certainly helpful. I thought I'd check out the article on Dr. Iskenius's presentation last week. I found what was presented interesting, but I decided to go to the source: the study from the German government cited in the article. Now first let me explain that I believe the studies that are out there warrant concern for residents of both Peace River and Grimshaw (which is closer to the proposed location of the nuclear plant). One study, Childhood Leukemia in the Vicinity of the Geesthacht Nuclear Establishments near Hamburg, Germany, Environ Health Perspect. 2007 June; 115(6): 947–952, showed that the cases of childhood leukemia within 5 km of a nuclear plant in the studied location were 3.5 times more likely. And even though that only represents 11 more cases of childhood leukemia, I would say that is 11 too many. However, because of the obscure mathematics of epidemiological statistics, the true value is likely not 3.5 but lies somewhere between 1.9 and 5.9. So cases could be anywhere from 2 times to 6 times more likely. Another study published in the European Journal of Cancer Care, issue 16, pages 355-363, entitled "Meta-analysis of standardized incidence and mortality rates of childhood leukemia in proximity to nuclear facilities" combined data from all the research that had been done on the issue to date and came up with some conclusions in the same direction as those mentioned by Dr. Iskenius, but less significant. The largest risk increase was in children age 0-9 living less than 16 km from the facility, but it was 1.23, and the lower confidence interval was 1.04, with the upper interval reaching 1.46. This is entirely outside of the confidence interval of the previous study, but it has more weight because it combined results from numerous studies, which allows it to congene somewhere closer to the true value. Having said that, this risk increase was in mortality rates, so it must again be stated that any increase in deaths of children caused by an energy source that may or may not be necessary is certainly alarming. The study did find increases in the incidence of leukemia in children 0-9 living within 16km of the facility, but the result was not statistically significant, meaning we cannot be entirely certain it was not due to chance. So, clearly, there is something to be concerned about.

However, I believe that a couple of the statements attributed to Dr. Iskenius in the Record Gazette article are either false or in the least, misleading.

The article states that the research Dr. Iskenius presented (it must be stated that Dr. Iskenius was not involved in the conducting of this research, nor is he listed as a coauthor) even showed increased risks when the effects of each nuclear plant studied were removed one by one. In fact, he is quoted as saying "
We found the very same results in all of them". This is not true. The original research article, published in the International Journal of Cancer in 2008, issue 1220, pages 721-726, shows that when the effects of one particular plant are removed the lower confidence interval of the correlation drops down to 0.14, drawing close to 0 which would suggest no impact. However, Krummel itself is cause for concern because there has been a well publicized increase in childhood leukemia cases there since 1990. Finally, Dr. Iskenius, or at least the Record Gazette article about Dr. Iskenius states that "The study also observed children downwind from the plants, up to 50 kilometres, and found similar results." That again is not entirely true. The odds ratio for all leukemias in children living within 5 km of a nuclear plant was found to be 1.76, meaning they had 1.76 times the odds of developing leukemia compared to the control group, children living more than 70 kilometres from a nuclear plant. When you move further away to be 5 to less than 10 km away, the odds ratio is 1.26. For those living 50 to less than 70 km away from the plant, the odds ratio is 1.03 and not significant, meaning there is no statistical proof that they have any higher odds of developing leukemia than those living more than 70km away. As the odds ratio steadily declined the further one got from the nuclear plant, I'm not sure how Dr. Iskenius is justified in stating that the study found similar results in children living downwind from the plants. Peace River falls roughly 40 km from Lac Cardinal, meaning that the figures quoted in the paper (120% more likely to develop leukemia, and 60% more likely to develop other forms of cancer) cannot necessarily be extrapolated to our situation. Grimshaw would be of somewhat greater concern given its proximity to the proposed plant, but it still falls outside of the most dangerous range that has shown up in studies.

Having said all this, I wish not to argue in favor or against nuclear power. I simply do not know enough about the pros and cons to make a reasoned stance (and in case you're wondering, I do have 2 young children). Let us not forget too that Alberta's main means of producing energy, oil sands, is not exactly spic and span on the environmental or health front. A Fort MacMurray physician reported in 2006 that he felt that leukemia, lymphomas, lupus, and autoimmune diseases were abnormally high in Fort Chipewyan, a fact he attributed to oil sands production. The oil sands use more water every year than the entire city of Calgary. They are the fastest growing source of greenhouse gas emissions in Canada. So maybe we just need to forgot about environmentally damaging and health-risking energy sources and focus on longer term goals, like reducing our energy requirements by using less in the first place, and expanding the use of renewable energy sources.

All I know for sure is that when dealing with as complex an issue as nuclear energy, one needs to have a proper foundation on which to base his/her stance. So don't take things at face value. Take the time to investigate for yourself. Because at the end of the day, if a position is based on false pretenses, it is that much harder to defend.


Tony Nickonchuk
Peace River, AB


Amy said...

Wow Tony! So many numbers and stats, my head hurts. :P
Did you get a response from the reporter? Very well written piece!

Pharmadaddy said...

No Amy, I did not get a response, but if I do I'll let you know. Thanks for reading.