Mortality from leukemia, cancer and heart disease among U.S. nuclear power plant workers, 1957-2011

Int J Radiat Biol. 2022;98(4):657-678. doi: 10.1080/09553002.2021.1967507. Epub 2022 Jan 12.


Background: The aim of the Million Person Study of Low-Dose Health Effects (MPS) is to examine the level of radiation risk for chronic exposures received gradually over time and not acutely as was the case for the Japanese atomic bomb survivors. Nuclear power plant (NPP) workers comprise nearly 15 percent of the MPS. Leukemia, selected cancers, Parkinson's disease, ischemic heart disease (IHD) and other causes of death are evaluated.

Methods and material: The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Radiation Exposure Information and Reporting System (REIRS) and the Landauer, Inc. dosimetry databases identified 135,193 NPP workers first monitored 1957-1984. Annual personal dose equivalents [Hp(10)] were available for each worker. Radiation records from all places of employment were sought. Vital status was determined through 2011. Mean absorbed doses to red bone marrow (RBM), esophagus, lung, colon, brain and heart were estimated by adjusting the recorded Hp(10) for each worker by scaling factors, accounting for exposure geometry and energy of the incident gamma radiation. Standardized mortality ratios (SMR) were calculated. Radiation risks were estimated using Cox proportional hazards models.

Results: Nearly 50% of workers were employed for more than 20 years. The mean duration of follow-up was 30.2 y. Overall, 29,124 total deaths occurred, 296 from leukemia other than chronic lymphocytic leukemia (CLL), 3382 from lung cancer, 140 from Parkinson's disease and 5410 from IHD. The mean dose to RBM was 37.9 mGy (maximum 1.0 Gy; percent >100 mGy was 9.2%), 43.2 mGy to lung, 43.7 mGy to colon, 33.2 mGy to brain, and 43.9 mGy to heart. The SMRs (95% CI) were 1.06 (0.94; 1.19) for leukemia other than CLL, 1.10 (1.07; 1.14) for lung cancer, 0.90 (0.76; 1.06) for Parkinson's disease, and 0.80 (0.78; 0.82) for IHD. The excess relative risk (ERR) per 100 mGy for leukemia other than CLL was 0.15 (90% CI -0.001; 0.31). For all solid cancers the ERR per 100 mGy (95% CI) was 0.01 (-0.03; 0.05), for lung cancer -0.04 (-0.11; 0.02), for Parkinson's disease 0.24 (-0.02; 0.50), and for IHD -0.01 (-0.06; 0.04).

Conclusion: Prolonged exposure to radiation increased the risk of leukemia other than CLL among NPP workers. There was little evidence for a radiation association for all solid cancers, lung cancer or ischemic heart disease. Increased precision will be forthcoming as the different cohorts within the MPS are combined, such as industrial radiographers and medical radiation workers who were assembled and evaluated in like manner.

Keywords: Epidemiology; Million Person (Worker) Study; heart disease; leukemia and cancer; nuclear power plant workers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Heart Diseases* / etiology
  • Humans
  • Leukemia*
  • Leukemia, Lymphocytic, Chronic, B-Cell*
  • Lung Neoplasms*
  • Nuclear Power Plants
  • Occupational Exposure* / adverse effects
  • Parkinson Disease*