A comprehensive program of medical follow-up of survivors of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan, by the Radiation Effects Research Foundation (RERF) has produced quantitative estimates of cancer risk from exposure to ionizing radiation. For breast cancer in women, in particular, the strength of the radiation dose response and the generally low level of population risk in the absence of radiation exposure have led to a clear description of excess risk and its variation by age at exposure and over time following exposure. Comparisons of RERF data with data from medically irradiated populations have yielded additional information on the influence of population and underlying breast cancer rates on radiation-related risk. Epidemiological investigations of breast cancer cases and matched controls among atomic bomb survivors have clarified the role of reproductive history as a modifier of the carcinogenic effects of radiation exposure. Finally, a pattern of radiation-related risk by attained age among the survivors exposed during childhood or adolescence suggests the possible existence of a radiation-susceptible subgroup. The hypothetical existence of such a group is lent plausibility by the results of recent family studies suggesting that heritable mutations in certain genes are associated with familial aggregations of breast cancer. The recent isolation and cloning of one such gene, BRCA1, makes it likely that the hypothesis can be tested using molecular assays of archival and other tissue obtained from atomic bomb survivor cases and controls.