Why UK nuclear power plants may cause childhood cancer and leukaemia
You won't hear the UK government admit it but after decades of research there is now evidence of real excesses of childhood cancer and leukaemia near some nuclear facilities, argues Dr Paul DorfmanLets cut to the chase. Since all nuclear reactors discharge low-level radiation to the environment, it would be intolerable if these emissions caused cancer and leukaemia to children and infants in local communities near to nuclear facilities, and if it were proven that they did then nuclear power would be finished. So the stakes are high.
Now the most recent shots in this trench war about radiation risk health effects have been fired by the UK government scientific advisory Committee on the Medical Effects of Radiation on the Environment (COMARE), who state unequivocally that increased childhood leukaemia and other cancers in communities near to nuclear power plants are not caused by radioactive pollution. Perhaps COMARE’s findings shouldn’t come as a great shock – there’s a history and trajectory to their work.
Back in 1983 the ‘Black Report’ investigated the proven, highly significant, and universally acknowledged 10-fold childhood leukaemia excess in the village of Seascale near the reprocessing plant of Sellafield in Cumbria. Sir Douglas Black’s government advisory group confirmed that although there was indeed a higher incidence of leukaemia in young people living in the area, radioactive discharges from Sellafield discharges weren’t the cause. The First COMARE Report confirmed these findings, as did the Second COMARE Report, which investigated the very high incidence (8-fold increase) of leukaemia in young people living near to the Dounreay nuclear reprocessing facility in Caithness.
COMARE’s Third Report considered an increased incidence of childhood cancer near the Atomic Weapons Establishment (AWE) at Aldermaston and Burghfield. Again, although there were confirmed and statistically significant increases in childhood leukaemia and other childhood cancers near the two sites, they judged that the doses from the radioactive discharges were far too low to cause the childhood cancer. Their Fourth Report looked again at the ongoing malignancies in young people in Seascale near Sellafield and once again, perhaps unsurprisingly, concluded that radiation emissions were not to blame.
Over the last 25 years 10 of COMARE’s 14 published Reports have dealt with radiation exposures to communities near to nuclear plants in the UK. Each report has successively dismissed the possibility that exposure to radiation from nuclear plants could in any way contribute to ill-health in local communities. COMARE also soundly rejected the possibility that radiation emissions could be even a factor in these malignancies – that ill-health could result from multiple causes, with radiation pollution as a contributory factor, as suggested by many members of the government scientific advisory Committee Examining Radiation Risks from Internal Emitters (CERRIE).
The 'cluster' theory
COMARE have another explanation of the leukaemia clusters: Population Mixing Theory (PMT). PMT suggests that contact (herd mingling) between incoming and sensitive resident populations promotes the exchange of an unidentified virus that causes leukaemia. In other words, an influx of new people may pass on a virus to the children of a remote community. And whilst it’s important to keep an open mind and explore any possible rational way forward, there are problems with this theory. For example, the Sellafield cluster is ongoing, and local children should have developed ‘herd immunity’ by now after many decades of exposure to this new unidentified virus.
Also, although nearly 8,000 construction workers from all parts of the UK landed in Cumbria in the 1940’s, when two TNT production plants were built at Windscale and Drigg near Sellafield, the leukaemias were only found after nuclear plants had started operations.