Guest comment by John Urquhart and CORE.
On November 1st 2013, it will be thirty years since the YTV film “Windscale: The Nuclear Laundry”, (available on You Tube) which discovered a ten-fold increase in childhood leukaemia next to the giant nuclear reprocessing plant that still perches on the edge of the Irish Sea in Cumbria. It is not matter for rejoicing. Windscale, now called Sellafield, was set up to extract plutonium from spent nuclear fuel. It now has 112 tons of the stuff – enough to arm twenty thousand nuclear bombs, which could destroy the world several times over. To produce this lethal legacy, Sellafield is now left with a store of liquid long-lived radioactivity three hundred times greater than that which escaped in the Fukushima nuclear accident. Sellafield has also deliberately released large quantities of radioactive material into the Irish Sea, including half a ton of plutonium, with a half-life of 26,000 years. This plutonium is now being carried back to land, via shore deposits and sea-spray. The YTV film was the first to sound the alarm on beach contamination, but the problem continues. Only last year, a research report (1) described one radioactive particle found on the beach which, if ingested by a baby or toddler, would produce a dose many times the legal limit. Yet Copeland District Council refuses to erect warning notices on the Seascale beach.
After the film, James Cutler and I set out to discover the possible health threat to communities on the Cumbrian coast. We found that apart from a high childhood cancer level in Seascale, the ward next to
Sellafield, there were three other wards on the Cumbrian coast in the top ten for childhood cancer, out of a total of 675 wards in the Northern Region(2). The probability of this happening by chance was
less than one in eighty – statistically significant. But, the high proportion of childhood leukaemias in Seascale suggested an additional factor. This emerged after a case-control study by Martin Gardner was published in 1990 (3). This showed that a possible genetic cause of childhood leukaemia around Sellafield was the irradiation of fathers who worked at the nuclear plant.
After this report was published, local parents who had children with leukaemia sued BNFL. With hindsight, their case may have been lost because of the emphasis on genetic factors only, without reference to radioactive exposure from the environment, particularly the role of ‘hot particles’ on the Seascale beach and on the land and in the air surrounding Sellafield. BNFL’s counter-argument was supported by research by Professor Louise Parker at Newcastle University. Ironically, later research by her and colleagues showed a possible genetic effect in the offspring of Sellafield radiation workers: a 24% increase in stillbirths, compared with expected. This included a 70% increase in neural tube defects(4). So, will the heritable damage stop there? An opportunity to study genetic effects in six thousand West Cumbrian children by examining their umbilical cord blood samples from 1995 to 2003 (Cumbria Communities Genetics Project) is now being destroyed systematically to accommodate the Data Protection Act (5).
‘Windscale: The Nuclear Laundry’ drew aside the veil of secrecy surrounding the health impacts of nuclear power, and exposed the dirty end of the nuclear industry. We should remind ourselves of this when signing up to any long-term contract on nuclear new build with foreign investors, who won’t have to live next to the most radioactive sea in the world.
(1) Eden Nuclear and Environment February 2013 Particles in the Offshore Environment from Sellafield. Report for the Environment Agency on a Data Quality Objectives Workshop held at Penrith 11th December 2012.
(2) Urquhart J and Cutler JA 1985 Incidence of Childhood-Cancer in West Cumbria. Lancet Volume: 1 Issue: 8421 Pages: 172-172.
(3) Gardner, MJ et al. 1990 Results of case-control study of leukaemia and lymphoma among young-people near Sellafield nuclear-plant in West Cumbria. British Medical Journal volume: 300, issue: 6722, pages:
(4) Parker L et al. 1999 Stillbirths among offspring of male radiation workers at Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant. Lancet volume: 354 issue: 9188 pages: 1407-1414.
(5) West Cumbria Sites Stakeholder Group, Environmental Health Sub-Committee, Meeting 77 Of The EHSC, Held at Cleator Moor Civic Hall, 29th November 2012