Cancer Risks near Nuclear Facilities: The Importance of Research Design and Explicit Study Hypotheses

Steve Wing, David B. Richardson, Wolfgang Hoffmann

Department of Epidemiology, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA, Institute for Community Medicine, Section Epidemiology of Health Care and Community Health, Ernst-Moritz-Arndt University of Greifswald, Greifswald, Germany

Environ Health Perspect 119:417-421 (2010). [online 10 December 2010]


Background: In April 2010, the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission asked the National Academy of Sciences to update a 1990 study of cancer risks near nuclear facilities. Prior research on this topic has suffered from problems in hypothesis formulation and research design.

Objectives: We review epidemiologic principles used in studies of generic exposure–response associations and in studies of specific sources of exposure. We then describe logical problems with assumptions, formation of testable hypotheses, and interpretation of evidence in previous research on cancer risks near nuclear facilities.

Discussion: Advancement of knowledge about cancer risks near nuclear facilities depends on testing specific hypotheses grounded in physical and biological mechanisms of exposure and susceptibility while considering sample size and ability to adequately quantify exposure, ascertain cancer cases, and evaluate plausible confounders.

Conclusions: Next steps in advancing knowledge about cancer risks near nuclear facilities require studies of childhood cancer incidence, focus on in utero and early childhood exposures, use of specific geographic information, and consideration of pathways for transport and uptake of radionuclides. Studies of cancer mortality among adults, cancers with long latencies, large geographic zones, and populations that reside at large distances from nuclear facilities are better suited for public relations than for scientific purposes.