Accidental Radiation Exposure

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Katherine Okonak, MSW, LSW
Last Reviewed: February 09, 2024

There are survivors from three accidental radiation exposures in the past that have helped us learn more about the effects of radiation:

  • The atomic bomb survivors in Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Japan (1945).
  • The survivors of the nuclear power plant accident in Chernobyl, Ukraine (1986).
  • The survivors of the accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant in Japan (2011).

During and after these events, millions of people came in contact with high levels of radioactivity leading to cancer and other health issues. Research has found that the age of the person at the time of the accident, the amount of radiation exposure, and their distance from the event are important when thinking about their cancer risk. Thyroid cancer and leukemia are the most common cancers seen in these survivors.

Research has found:

  • Long-term studies with Japan's atomic bomb survivors have found much higher rates of cancers of the oral cavity, esophagus, stomach, colon, liver, lung, non-melanoma skin, breast, ovary, bladder, nervous system, and thyroid.
  • Thyroid cancer is more common in children and adolescents who lived near Chernobyl, adults involved in the cleanup, and those who lived closest to the power plant.
    • There are a few reasons that thyroid cancer was more common in these children. A child’s thyroid gland is more "sensitive" to iodine. When they are exposed to radioactive iodine it tends to settle in their thyroid. Children may have also drank milk either from their mothers or cattle that contained radioactive iodine.  Children are more likely to have low levels of iodine which caused their bodies to hold on to more of the radioactive iodine. Also, the thyroid grows very quickly during childhood, so genetic mutations caused by exposure to radiation are more likely, which can lead to cancer.

If you are exposed to radiation, it is important to tell your healthcare provider. They will be able to tell you what screening tests can be done to either decrease your risk of getting cancer or catch cancer at an early stage.


Boice Jr, J. D. (2017). From Chernobyl to Fukushima and beyond—a focus on thyroid cancer. In Thyroid Cancer and Nuclear Accidents: Long-Term Aftereffects of Chernobyl and Fukushima (pp. 21-32). Academic Press.Preston, D. L., Ron, E., Tokuoka, S., Funamoto, S., Nishi, N., Soda, M., ... & Kodama, K. (2007). Solid cancer incidence in atomic bomb survivors: 1958–1998. Radiation research, 168(1), 1-64.

Radiation Effects Research Foundation.

World Health Organization: Ionizing Radiation.

Yamashita, S., Takamura, N., Ohtsuru, A., & Suzuki, S. (2016). Radiation exposure and thyroid cancer risk after the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant Accident in comparison with the Chernobyl Accident. Radiation protection dosimetry, 171(1), 41-46.


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