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Non-nuclear energy

Risk of low and protracted exposures to radiation

Fission and radiation protection

Most of our knowledge about radiation induced cancer is derived from the survivors of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki atomic bombs and from patients exposed to external radiotherapy. In both these situations the subjects were exposed to high doses of radiation over a relatively short time. The risk of cancer posed by exposure to ionizing radiation at low dose is subject to considerable uncertainty.

The quantification of the risk due to the exposure of the general population to sources of radiation that occur naturally or in the workplace is a controversial scientific and policy area. There is an argument that there is a threshold below which there is no quantifiable risk, whilst others argue that the risks are far greater than generally believed. Achieving a consensus in this area has important public health and economic implications: if there is a threshold then resources are being wasted in efforts to reduce exposures unnecessarily, but if the risks are greater then the level of protection needs to be increased. Community research is being directed in two complementary areas: epidemiological studies of exposed populations and cellular and molecular biology.

Epidemiological studies are being carried out on a number of populations that have been exposed over extended periods to enhanced levels of radiation. They include uranium mine workers, nuclear industry personnel generally, some groups from the Southern Urals who were exposed to radiation during the Soviet nuclear weapons development programme, victims of the Chernobyl accident and populations that live in areas exposed to above average levels of the naturally-occurring radioactive gas radon in their homes.

However epidemiological studies have limitations due to statistical reasons such as the size of the populations involved and cannot determine exactly the level of risk at very low levels of exposure. This can only be determined through a thorough understanding of the fundamental mechanisms that initiate cancer and the interaction of radiation with the body. This more fundamental research is wide ranging and has many interlinked strands. The main focus is to gain better understanding of all the important mechanisms involved from the initial damage caused by the radiation to the expression of health effects in an individual and to develop models to describe these processes.

Complementary research may be undertaken to identify, using genetic techniques, those in the population who may be more susceptible to exposure to radiation and to develop tests for this purpose.