The headline was alarming and the text even more so: “Cancer behind 70% deaths in India’s atomic energy hubs.” The piece went on to insist that not only have 2,600 employees died of cancer at 19 atomic energy facilities over the last two decades, there was also one suicide every month in that time. However, the Department of Atomic Energy insists that this is not quite true.

On Friday, the department put out a clarification insisting that the numbers being cited by the news reports were wrong. “The outlandish claim on the rate of cancer and suicides among DAE employees seems to be based on grossly erroneous and distorted interpretation of the information provided by DAE units in their responses to the RTI query,” the department said.

The news report in the Times of India, based on a Right to Information response, suggested that 3,887 Department of Atomic Energy employees had died between 1995 to 2014. Of these, it suggested that 2,600 had died of cancer-related conditions and that 255 had been suicides.

“Such high cancer mortality is alarming and needs to be analysed further to check if it occurred among people who were in touch with radioactive material or among the non-scientific staff," a senior physician was quoted saying in the story.

The Department of Atomic Energy, however, disputes those numbers. Saying that it “once again scrutinised” the information provided by its units who had responded to RTI activist Chetan Kothari’s plea, it claimed that the figures it found were substantially different. Only 2,564 Department of Atomic Energy  employees had died over that period, it said, of which 152 had cancer-related deaths and 69 were suicides.

“All the responses do not necessarily contain information on the cause of deaths (response to information is always based on available information alone)," it clarified. "Thus the actual number of deaths of employees due to cancer-related causes could be higher than the above figure of 152, but this would in no case be anywhere near 2,600 cases, as being made out in the media report.”

A separate study carried out by the Tata Memorial Centre, which covered more than 22,000 workers and their families at three major nuclear installations between 1981 and 2012, also concluded that cancer accounted for 16% of all deaths over that time, as reported in the same newspaper. This is much closer to the national average of around 7% and infinitesimal in comparison to the new report’s figure of 70%.

The Department’s clarification included a simple theory about why the numbers in the article were so wrong: it had simply counted the wrong numbers.

“DAE has reasons to believe that the information on the number of DAE employees undergoing treatment for different types of illness or ailment, provided by a couple of units of DAE in their responses to the RTI query of Shri C. Kothari in 2014, has been recklessly counted as ‘deaths of employees’, and tabulated for circulation,” the department said, in its response.