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Close up on Research

In the mid-1980s, the issue of nuclear waste was a headline-grabber, with the toxic clouds of Chernobyl drifting across Northern Europe, and CND spearheading protests across the land. Since then, CND's membership has dwindled, and GM foods hold the health-scare pole-position. But the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment (COMARE) has been keeping its eye on the nuclear industry all along.

Professor Bryn Bridges, based at the Cell Mutation Unit, has been at the helm for six years as the watchdog's chairman. Here, he tells us about COMARE's research.

COMARE was set up over ten years ago after a programme by Granada TV alleged that there was an excess of childhood leukaemia near the Sellafield reprocessing plant. Since then we have produced six reports, looking mainly at Sellafield but also at Dounreay and the weapons base at Aldermaston.

Our first report, which investigated Sellafield, found that there was indeed an excess of leukaemia in the area. In fact, childhood leukaemia incidences are around ten times higher in the nearby village of Seascale than the national average. We were also very critical in that report of BNFL for their failure to pass important information on to COMARE. In 1996 we scrutinised Sellafield again in a report which took two years to put together. In this report - our fourth - we had an exhaustive look at the situation, and found that the excess of childhood leukaemia had been going on for over thirty years.

Sellafield has been a nuclear site since 1947, and before that it was a chemical explosives plant making TNT, which is potentially carcinogenic in itself. But even though this report went into incredible detail, there just wasn't enough evidence to attribute the high incidence of leukaemia to radiation.

One theory is that high leukaemia levels are partly down to population mixing. There is considerable epidemiological evidence to show that childhood leukaemia is an infectious disorder, although we don't yet know what the infectious agent is. But there is very good evidence that when you put mixed populations together, especially in an isolated rural area, you get a tansient burst of childhood leukaemia: perhaps a doubling of the average rate. It happened with the North Sea oil industry, with New Towns, military bases and, in the war, with evacuees.

At Dounreay, there were six cases of childhood leukaemia between 1979 and 1984 when only one would have been expected. In our sixth report we investigated the possibility that radioactive particles on the beaches surrounding the reprocessing plant had given rise to this excess. From about 1979 the monitors at Dounreay had been picking up bits of radioactive material on the beach, but they hadn't publicised it, and the beach in front of the site wasn't closed off.

In fact, we found that the contamination on the beaches couldn't be responsible for the childhood leukaemia rates. There's just not enough of it. However, the radioactive particles could still be dangerous - the most powerful ones could kill you if you swallowed them. Of course, to have the chance of swallowing a particle you'd have to swallow lots of sand. But physical contact could lead to a localised skin ulceration.

The Atomic Energy Authority had claimed that the particles came from a road spillage of the casings that go on fuel rods in the 1960s, but we discovered that just one of the particles from the beach had as much radioactivity as the entire spillage was supposed to have.

Then they told us about an explosion in the intermediate level radioactive waste disposal shaft which happened in 1979. They obviously hadn't wanted to draw attention to the shaft, and as soon as we saw it we said it was absolutely unacceptable. It's about 215ft deep, around two-thirds full, and built around 20ft away from the edge of a cliff which is rapidly eroding. We called in the Radioactive Waste Management Advisory Committee, and together we made a joint recommendation that the shaft should either be rendered unbreachable by the sea or all contents should be removed and stored properly. The government accepted the recommendation, and they agreed to the change - at a cost of around £200 million. It was probably the most expensive government committee recommendation ever!

Despite the dangers presented by this shaft, population mixing can be held as the most plausible explanation of the leukaemia cluster in Dounreay. But the situation at Sellafield remains a mystery. We simply don't know what is causing the high levels of childhood leukaemia there. It is clear, though, that the biggest source of radiation there is from the Sellafield site. The local estuaries are all radioactive - low level, but if you use a Geiger counter there, it would go off the scale.

Even though we haven't made any definitive links between radiation and health problems, there has been a clear theme of shiftiness amongst the authorities when it comes to releasing information, as well as a lack of desire to investigate situations. But things have improved. There was a time in the nuclear industry when because no-one understood it and because a lot of it was classified, those who were involved weren't adequately monitored. They became a bit of a law unto themselves. Things have changed a lot over the last ten years, and that's partly to do with COMARE. Although our power is not regulatory, all of our recommendations have been accepted by the government. I think we do a very important job.

There is an excess of leukaemia in the area around Sellafield.


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Friday 25th June 1999


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