At present, direct data on risk from protracted or fractionated radiation exposure at low dose rates have been limited largely to studies of populations exposed to low cumulative doses with resulting low statistical power. We evaluated the cancer risks associated with protracted exposure to external whole-body gamma radiation at high cumulative doses (the average dose is 0.8 Gy and the highest doses exceed 10 Gy) in Russian nuclear workers. Cancer deaths in a cohort of about 21,500 nuclear workers who began working at the Mayak complex between 1948 and 1972 were ascertained from death certificates and autopsy reports with follow-up through December 1997. Excess relative risk models were used to estimate solid cancer and leukemia risks associated with external gamma-radiation dose with adjustment for effects of plutonium exposures. Both solid cancer and leukemia death rates increased significantly with increasing gamma-ray dose (P < 0.001). Under a linear dose-response model, the excess relative risk for lung, liver and skeletal cancers as a group (668 deaths) adjusted for plutonium exposure is 0.30 per gray (P < 0.001) and 0.08 per gray (P < 0.001) for all other solid cancers (1062 deaths). The solid cancer dose-response functions appear to be nonlinear, with the excess risk estimates at doses of less than 3 Gy being about twice those predicted by the linear model. Plutonium exposure was associated with increased risks both for lung, liver and skeletal cancers (the sites of primary plutonium deposition) and for other solid cancers as a group. A significant dose response, with no indication of plutonium exposure effects, was found for leukemia. Excess risks for leukemia exhibited a significant dependence on the time since the dose was received. For doses received within 3 to 5 years of death the excess relative risk per gray was estimated to be about 7 (P < 0.001), but this risk was only 0.45 (P = 0.02) for doses received 5 to 45 years prior to death. External gamma-ray exposures significantly increased risks of both solid cancers and leukemia in this large cohort of men and women with occupational radiation exposures. Risks at doses of less than 1 Gy may be slightly lower than those seen for doses arising from acute exposures in the atomic bomb survivors. As dose estimates for the Mayak workers are improved, it should be possible to obtain more precise estimates of solid cancer and leukemia risks from protracted external radiation exposure in this cohort.