San Onofre Nuclear Plant: Highest Childhood Leukemia Death Rates

by on December 13, 2008 · 17 comments

in Energy, Environment, Health, San Diego

A recent study found that childhood (ages 0-19) leukemia mortality rates around US nuclear power plants have been significantly higher than the national average.

“Leukemia death rates in U.S. children near nuclear reactors rose sharply (vs. the national trend) in the past two decades,” a November 11 press release for the study stated.

The study, “Childhood Leukemia Near Nuclear Installations,” appeared as a letter to the editor in the most recent issue of the European Journal of Cancer Care.

Its authors are epidemiologist Joseph Mangano and toxicologist Janette Sherman, both members of the Radiation and Public Health Project (

The authors chose to study childhood leukemia because it “is the type of childhood cancer most frequently studied by scientists,” the authors wrote. “In the U.S., childhood leukemia incidence has risen 28.7% from 1974-2004, according to CDC data.”

Using mortality statistics from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the authors analyzed death rates from 67 counties adjoining 51 nuclear power stations. They then compared changes in the rates for the period of nuke plant startups, through 1984, with rates for the period 1985-2004.

Among the study’s findings:

  • An increase of 13.9% in death rates near nuclear plants started 1957-1970 (oldest plants).
  • An increase of 9.4% near nuclear plants started 1971-1981 (newer plants).
  • A decrease of 5.5% near nuclear plants started 1957-1981 and later shut down.

The 13.9% rate for older plants was statistically significant (P<0.02).

For all plants still operating, the mortality rate, comparing startup-1984 to 1985-2004, was 9.9% higher than the national rate, and also was statistically significant (P<0.03).

San Onofre #1

The authors noted, “The plant with the largest local population is the San Onofre installation in Southern California, located on the border of San Diego and Orange Counties. Results are also presented for this site…and a [statistically] significant increase in leukemia for children aged 0-9 [41% higher than the national rate] and 10-19 [29.5% higher] was observed. Areas near other individual facilities experienced many fewer deaths, and no changes achieved statistical significance.”

Despite these disturbing findings, the study did hold out a ray of hope. “Because of major therapeutic advances in the past several decades,” the authors wrote, “the childhood leukemia survival rate is one of the highest of any type of cancer in developed nations. The death rate has plunged while incidence has risen; in the USA, the childhood leukemia mortality and incidence changes from 1975 to 2004 were –49.0% and +29.7% respectively.”

Clearly, however, closing down all nuclear plants and preventing new ones from being built would be the best choices we could make.

Actor and activist Alec Baldwin put it well in the study’s press release:

“Exposure to ambient levels of radiation near nuclear reactors used by public utilities has long been suspected as a significant contributor to various cancer and other diseases,” he stated.

“Nuclear power is not the clean, efficient energy panacea to which we are presently being reintroduced. It is dirty, poses serious security threats to our country, and is ridiculously expensive. Nukes are still a military technology forced on the American public with a dressed up civilian application.”

{ 16 comments… read them below or add one }

dan h December 13, 2008 at 6:42 pm

this report is without merit. san onofre is located on an unpopulated corner of camp pendleton marine base and the nearest significant population is 2 miles upwind of the site. how many real cases are there? where are they located? how many of these people are illegal mexican immigrants who haven’t lived in the area even 6 months? (this is the major route of illegals into los angeles).
plus, i must say that i am relieved that alec baldwin has focused his attention on the hazards of nuclear power. it is a shame that he didn’t get to star in the “china syndrome”.


dan h December 13, 2008 at 7:03 pm

grand central station in new york city is made from radioactive granit that emits hundreds of times more radiation and directly exposes thousands of more people than any power plant in the country. what is the leukemia rate for new york city?
coal releases more radiation into the atmosphere than nuclear power plants. coal plants cost about 6 cents per kilowatt hour. natural gas plants cost about 7.5 cents per kilowatt hour. most power plants are manned by about 15 people per generator unit. san onofre is manned by about 5,000 people to support 2 generators. and yet it only costs about 5 cents per kilowatt hour.
any of these claims can be checked out by checking with your public utilities commission and the epa. it is much more meaningful than underemployed actors.


Molly December 15, 2008 at 8:45 am

dah h – I admit the stats are slim, but they are there, nevertheless. Your head in the sand attitude is deserving of a blog troll, someone who cruises the blogs, makes outrageous statements just to get people fired up. Since when does a 2 mile distance mean anything to nuclear dust or radiation? Your totally unsubstantiated comments emitted to somehow counter the dangers from San Onofre are not worthy of response. What is the point about the undocumented migrants near the nuclear power plant? Are they less worthy of protection? Your biases are glaring.


dan h December 15, 2008 at 3:09 pm

my dear Molly. i have been involved with nuclear power for 30 years. nuclear power plants like san onofre do not emit nuclear dust. what they do emit is occasional small puffs of hydrogen and helium gas which is sometimes radioactive. these gases are emitted from a vent about 200 feet above ground level. and, as you might recall if you had attended a science class, hydrogen and helium are both lighter than air and rise into the upper atmosphere fairly rapidly. and since there is a 2 mile distance upwind of the plant to the nearest population center, there is little to no chance that any exposure to these gases might occur. if the illegal migrants were included in the leukemia study, it is far more likely that they had brought the leukemia with them then contract it here. consider if you can, that much of the scrap metal sold by mexican business to the US is very radioactive and is actually toxic. further, if san onofre was such a dangerous place, why is there no incidence of increased cancer in the onsite workforce of 5,000. many of these people have been on this site for more than 20 years. according to the leukemia study exposure of only a few years is enough to get cancer. why is there no increase of cancer inside the plant? radiation exposure decreases at a rate equal to the inverse of the square of the distance. a person at 2 feet of distance will suffer 1/4 the exposure that a person at 1 foot would receive. how can there be an increase of lethality at 2 miles but not at the epicenter? in fact why is there no report of an increase in cancer for the marines who live on the downwind side of the plant. this leukemia study seems to be more about how to manipulate data to cause panic than it is about nuclear safety.


JT September 27, 2011 at 3:00 pm

How much did Edison pay you to write those fairy tales Dan? Do you live nearby San Clemente? Either you don’t, or the radiation over the last 30 years has melted the cells in that small brain of yours. You are not a part of the solution, but the problem as far as we are all concerned.


jon December 16, 2008 at 5:26 pm

I dunno Dan…you may have some good points, although you’re somewhat vague about how you’ve been “involved” in nuclear energy and you don’t really list any verifiable sources for blog readers to fact check other than your self proclaimed nuclear wisdom. But the fact of the matter is, I don’t think you’re really getting anyone warmed up to the idea that nuclear power is totally safe and cool and we shouldn’t worry about it. I for one still cringe at the thought of nuclear power plants in our backyards.


DAN H December 22, 2008 at 9:10 pm

the point is that nuke power is not totally safe. the alternatives are NOT safe either. modern life is not safe. you will never be safe from anything. but if you don’t want to live in a cave while unable to start a campfire, then you should study some science, geology, electricity, and chemistry. find your information without resorting to public opinion polls. john q public is the least informed authority available. political leaders base their knowledge on public opinion polls in order to pander to the great uninformed. do you want to be a FREE MAN? teach yourself. public schools do not teach learning. seek source materials. learn the scientific method. this will let you learn and test your information. information is not valid if you can’t test it. and testing does not involve blogs. find out about joseph goebbels ( to learn about propaganda. read karl marx to learn about your enemies, for enemies you all have.


Frank Gormlie December 23, 2008 at 9:19 am

Dan H – great points. We have learned, however, through the scientific method and dialectical thought that nuclear power is not the answer.


Bill Cosworth December 30, 2008 at 7:18 am

Regarding civilian nuke ppwer, please check in with France. We have frittered away our invention to other countries while the local mush heads vasillate and we make the oil suppliers richer. France derives about 85% of it’s electrical power from nukes and it exports that power to nearby countries.

We have an incredable nuke saftey tecord with nuke power with the Navy if anyone cares to look.

Interesting that the San Onofre cases only speak of percentages. I suspect the actual numbers are next to nothing. Further, what happens to the population over 19? Maybe if that was included the stats would evaporate to no-news. As one writer pointed out what about the plant workers? Duh.


Frank Gormlie December 30, 2008 at 11:00 am

Bill – thanks for checking in with us. But – 3 words: Three Mile Island.


alex January 18, 2009 at 2:45 pm

There is an epidemic of mysterious canine cancers in Orange County. The oncologists don’t know what to make of the epidemic, but a lot of small dogs are dying. These are from lines that normally live more than 3 times as long as the OC dogs who die from these mysterious diseases. Those smallest are in the most danger. This is indicative of a problem related to the environment.

I buried my seven pound Toy-sized Eskie on Friday. She was the healthiest dog imaginable until she got the mysterious cancer. The doctors were never able to find the source – except that it was fast moving and attacked the bones. It wasn’t bone cancer, though.

This article seems to shed light on the problem.


george sowers May 30, 2009 at 11:06 pm

Any discussion of nuclear power safety inevitably turns to Three Mile Island, considered the worst–and only–nuclear power failure in the United States. Sen. Pete Domenici (R-NM) addressed Three Mile in his outstanding 2004 book, A Brighter Tomorrow: Fulfilling the Promise of Nuclear Energy:

“… few realize that even though 90 percent of the fuel rods ruptured, the accident was a non-event from a radiation standpoint. The maximum exposure to the nearest member of the public was little more than a third of the [Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s] annual limit for the public. And no worker exceeded the commission’s current annual limit for occupational exposure.”

Domenici also recounts the amazing health record for sailors living on nuclear submarines during the past 50 years. “In the Navy’s nuclear submarines, the sailors who live and work within yards of operating reactors receive less whole body radiation while underway than while at home and exposed to natural background radiation.”

Safe Technology

Polls show the public accepts far greater risk in their everyday lives, without concern, than the risks they are exposed to with nuclear power. Perhaps some of the remaining unnecessary fears will be assuaged by the next true evolution of reactor design: “pebble bed reactors” that use thousands of ceramic-coated, tennis ball-sized spheres of graphite and uranium.

These reactors are designed so that the chain reaction cannot heat the mass above 1,600 degrees Celsius, at which point the temperature of the mass will fall. The ceramic coat will not melt at temperatures below 2,000 degrees Celsius. Thus no meltdown can occur, making the reactor inherently safe, rather than safe as a result of external safety systems.

Nuclear power plants do not offer an attractive target to terrorists. In 2003, the Electric Power Research Institute performed a simulated air and ground terrorist attack, concluding that no parts of a Boeing 767-400, when crashed into a reactor, would penetrate the containment building or the spent fuel storage pool. As for attack by land, nuclear plants are relatively unattractive targets because of high security and low explosion potential.

While the risk of anything occurring never reaches zero, nuclear safety should not be on any rational person’s list of things to lose sleep over.

If we ever want to wean our country off of the middle east’s nipple we need to get serious about what we are going to do for our energy future.
Solar, wind, etc is fine but it cant support our countrys energy needs now.
Nuclear power can and does for other countrys energy needs. If France can do it we can do it better. Our nuclear plants are from the 70’s and are fine but the new plants that can be built are even better. Just like any other technology. Compare a 70’s tv, car, computer, etc to a new one. Nuclear plants are good neighbors. We have two here in southwest michigan. They pay high taxes, and provide great paying jobs. Both are good for the surrounding communitys.


defibguy September 19, 2009 at 10:28 am

Wow,, all the doomsayers,,and conspirasy theroists live here,,, with Alec B.. dang,, no wonder they call you the “left coast”.. any one want a bite of reality,, ?? look at the big picture,, consider all the arguments…. all the options… and the expenses.. this is not a bad deal.. clean power,, virturally no emissions.. no major mishaps.. a few minor,, non-operational write ups do not constitute any failures… oh,, and the poor dog.. can any one “pinpoint” cancer or the origin thereof?? really,, think about it,, get off the sensationalized BS being thrown at the public by a few wanna be important self agrandizing, self rightious, NON LEADERS!!! do the research for yourself.. teach yourself,, learn,, then decide,, sorry abou the dog,, did you ever feed the dog a french fry from any fast food place,, or ever give the dog table scraps,, grapes,, onions,, ?? you might have given the dog cancer yourself,, and didn’t even know it,, your vet should have told you that,, but probably wanted to spare your delicate feelings………… lean right,, you can’t fall,,,


Frank Gormlie September 19, 2009 at 10:53 am

defibguy – one word (actually 3): Three Mile Island. Ever hear of it?


J_Blockhead November 20, 2009 at 9:46 pm

Anyone interested in this sort of thing please refer to Hanford Nuclear Waste Site in Washington State, the underground nuclear testing done in Nevada/Colorado that is now seeping back into the environment, and the disposal of nuclear waste products at INEEL in Idaho. Dan H you don’t get it. These people (scientists) using these elements are not Curie or Einstein(our sad state of genuine problem solvers has been relegated to problems like impotence and the availability of texting). They have no idea what they are doing or have done. They have vague remnants of failed hypothesis and half theories which now have no answers so they make up facts or omit others to cover up their lack of knowledhge. They didn’t know what they were creating/manipulating and subsequently have no remedies. Someone is supposed to believe even one of these people without looking at the facts. I too am familiar with nuclear power and know the current state from these facilities is complex. However it doesn’t take a scientist to see if you produce something you need to dispose of the byproducts. Maybe we should do it in your backyard. Just because you have had a safe experience with nuclear energy doesn’t mean the hazards don’t exist. Do the research!


Richard Sauerheber May 24, 2012 at 9:28 am

I have opposed nuclear fission reactors for over 30 years because of the generated industrial plutonium, with its vast half-life, that cannot be neutralized. But nothing was going to stop the engineers who were bent on building these units using the filthy fission reaction that we now know emits significant quantities of strontium-90, iodine-131 and a long list of isotopes that emanate out the stacks of this type of reactor. The reason Germany banned all nuclear reactors is not only because of Fukushima recently, but becasue of studies demonstrating that children living within 5 miles of the units develop cancer at 1.5 times more incidence than children living further away. This is old published data. Plant workers luckily are not children. Residents nearest San Onofre are given iodine tablets, but why does anyone need to live like this when natural nuclear fusion clean energy from the sun can be utilized more. If this plant were stopped, because it is more expensive than other forms of enrgy (when including all the government subsidies for building and operating them, rather than the claim that they are cheaper which only includes monies other than those subsidies) then at the worst, scheduled blackouts I would not mind, but aren’t likely to be needed. It is easy to correct unnecessary overuse of public electricity with a little care.


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