Human leukemia frequently involves recurrent translocations. Since radiation is a well-known inducer of both leukemia and chromosomal translocations, it has long been suspected that radiation might cause leukemia by inducing specific translocations. However, recent studies clearly indicate that spontaneous translocations specific to acute lymphocytic leukemia (ALL) actually occur much more frequently than do leukemia cases with the same translocations. Moreover, the ALL-associated translocation-bearing cells are often found to have clonally expanded in individuals who do not develop ALL. Since radiation-induced DNA damage is generated essentially randomly in the genome, it does not seem likely that radiation could ever be responsible for the induction of identical translocations of relevance to ALL in multiple cells of an individual and hence be the primary cause of radiation-related leukemia. An alternative hypothesis described here is that the radiation-related ALL risk for a population is almost entirely attributable to a small number of predisposed individuals in whom relatively large numbers of translocation-carrying pre-ALL cells have accumulated. This preleukemic clone hypothesis explains various known characteristics of radiation-related ALL and implies that people who do not have substantial numbers of preleukemic cells (i.e. the great majority) are likely at low risk of developing leukemia. The hypothesis can also be applied to chronic myelogenous leukemia and to young-at-exposure cases of acute myelogenous leukemia.