The Southern Urals radiation studies
In the late 1940s and early 1950s the nuclear workers of the Mayak Production Association in the Southern Urals were exposed to high doses from γ-rays and from incorporated plutonium. In addition, the population of the Techa riverside downstream of the plutonium-production sites received continued exposures from external γ-rays due to fission products released into the river and from the internal radiation due to incorporation of the fission products. Based on two international coordination meetings in 1998 and 2000, a synopsis has been given recently in this journal of the radioepidemiological studies on these exposed populations. This commentary describes the current status of these singular investigations with regard to the dosimetry, the assessment of late health effects, and the risk estimation both for the Mayak nuclear workers and the Techa riverside population. A central issue are newly published reduced estimates of the external dose to the Techa riverside population which imply substantially increased risk coefficients for solid cancer. Unless the new dosimetry system, TRDS-2000, has missed a major dose contribution, there is now conspicuous disagreement with current risk estimates. Unaccounted doses from atmospheric releases of fission products and from radiological screening of the Techa riverside population need to be explored, but underestimation of the short lived fission products released into the river appears to be a more critical factor. It is furthermore argued that even if TRDS-2000 were confirmed it would remain questionable whether risk estimates can be based on organ-specific doses when they are obtained in a population with a much higher bone-marrow exposure that may possibly have caused an 'abscopal' radiation effect.